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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rory McIlroy enters the next phase of his season knowing that his fortunes can change without notice.
That's what happened last year.
McIlroy had gone five months without winning, long enough to lose his No. 1 ranking. He also went through a slump so severe that he missed the cut in four out of five tournaments, including his title defense in the U.S. Open. There was only a shred of evidence that his game was coming around when he tied for fifth at Firestone before heading to Kiawah Island for the final major of the year.
One week changed everything. McIlroy won the PGA Championship, and then won consecutive FedEx Cup playoff events and ended the year with another big win in Dubai.
Did he see it coming?
"No, not really," McIlroy said Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Championship, scene of his first PGA Tour title in 2010. "I don't think you do. Of course, you want to try to get in contention and try to win tournaments. But you get comfortable with your game over a period of time and it's a great feeling. And I wish I had that feeling all the time."
So maybe there's hope for McIlroy, who turns 24 on Saturday.
He went through another wretched slump at the start of the year and only lately has shown signs of turning it around. He tied for second in the Texas Open, and at least had a decent finish at the Masters with a 69 on the last day to tie for 25th.
Quail Hollow brings back good memories.
McIlroy was headed toward a missed cut in 2010 until he made eagle on his 16th hole of the second round to make the cut on the number. He got back into contention the next day, and then closed with a 62 for the victory.
He is the top player in a field that is weak by Quail Hollow standards. No. 2 in the world, he is the only top-10 player in the field. The Wells Fargo Championship gets underway Thursday, with McIlroy teeing off in the afternoon.
McIlroy is looking for a little momentum to push him in the right direction.
"I'm happy with where my game is at," he said. "That little spark, that little bit of momentum to maybe get on a run like I got on at the end of last year would be nice, but I'm being patient with it and just waiting for the right time."
One reason for the shortage of big names that usually show up at Quail Hollow might be the condition of the golf course.
Quail Hollow has been a symbol of perfection for 10 years since it returned to the PGA Tour lineup, a beautifully manicured golf course where the six major champions who have won ranged from Tiger Woods to McIlroy. It is less than perfect this year. Some have even compared the greens to a rundown municipal course.
"You can't lie about it — the greens are shaky," defending champion Rickie Fowler said Wednesday. "But I feel like come tournament time ... you're still going to be able to make putts. There is still a hole out there. Someone's going to have to make putts this week. Someone's going to win the golf tournament. They're still giving out a trophy and a jacket at the end of Sunday."
No one is more disappointed than tournament officials, who spared no expense trying to fix a problem that was out of their control. The South has been plagued by an unusually cold and wet spring, which tournament director Kym Hougham said was the primary culprit. The bent greens are to be torn up in two weeks and replaced by Bermuda, a move that is one year too late.
How bad are they?
The greens on Nos. 8 and 10 had to be replaced by sod just last week — in fact, the 10th green had to be re-sodded twice because the roots were growing sideways. For the new sod, the club paid for strips of grass that were 4 feet wide and 60 feet long to reduce the number of seams, even though it was the most costly. Several other putting surfaces have patches of brown where there is no grass.
On four greens, the players were asked to only hit one shot in the practice rounds and limit their putting to alleviate stress on the greens.
"I'm trying to see how many bounces it takes to get to the hole," Robert Allenby said. "That was 22 for a 33-foot putt."
Allenby took issue with a memo from PGA Tour officials that warned players of four bad greens at Quail Hollow, with the rest of them typical of tour greens.
"There's not one green that's like a normal tour green," Allenby said. "That might have confused a lot of players."
Woods decided last week not to play, presumably because he forgot there were only two weeks between the Masters and Quail Hollow, a change in the schedule this year. Nine players already have withdrawn, including past champions Vijay Singh and David Toms. Ian Poulter was in Charlotte on Tuesday but never made it out to the golf course. He withdrew citing personal reasons. Not all of the withdrawals are related to course conditions, although there were enough to make other players wonder.
Tournament director Kym Hougham didn't hide his disappointment, nor did he make any excuses.
"It's unfortunate," he said of the greens. "There was a lot of effort put it to rectify the situation. A number of factors contributed, Mother Nature being the biggest. But you know our standard. They deserve good greens, and we didn't produce good greens. And we'll make sure that never happens again."
For the players who showed up — and stayed — they planned to make the best of it.
"We come to Quail Hollow and they're — for me — probably the best greens on tour, usually," McIlroy said. "It's just unfortunate that they're not quite up to the standard that they usually are, but it's no big deal. The rest of the golf course is in phenomenal shape. It's going to be the same. Everyone has to putt on them, and the best player at the end of the week is still going to win. I don't think there is a big problem at all."
"I don't mind because I'm not a guy that relies on my putting, per se," he said. "So it will eliminate quite a lot of the field. I don't mind that at all."