Birthday-boy Rory McIlroy returns to Quail Hollow

Two-time champion Rory McIlroy watches his drive from the sixth tee with members of the gallery during Wednesday’s pro-am at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte.
Two-time champion Rory McIlroy watches his drive from the sixth tee with members of the gallery during Wednesday’s pro-am at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte.

Wednesday was Rory McIlroy’s 27th birthday.

It only seems like every day is a special day at Quail Hollow Club for McIlroy, who returns this week to Charlotte to defend a Wells Fargo Championship he has won twice, most recently in record-breaking fashion in 2015.

McIlroy cruised to last year’s championship by seven strokes at 21-under par, making him the tournament’s first two-time winner and one of the favorites to win this year’s event, which will begin Thursday.

“Has he won twice now?” said Jim Furyk, the Wells Fargo’s 2006 champion. “I can see the golf course suiting him. But I guess one of the reasons is, he is one of the best three players in the world if he’s on his game.”

Whether McIlroy is on his game, however, might be an issue. He has yet to win this season. He also hasn’t played since the Masters, where he tied for 10th in his second attempt to complete the career slam of winning each of golf’s majors.

In fact, before arriving at Quail Hollow this week, McIlroy had only played 11 holes of golf in the month between Augusta, Ga., and Charlotte. He played seven practice holes Tuesday, then he competed in Wednesday’s pro-am.

“There were a couple of things at Augusta that I wasn’t happy with, (especially) my swing, so I’ve been working on (that) quite a lot,” McIlroy said. “It feels like it’s getting more comfortable.”

McIlroy hasn’t really played poorly; he has two top-five finishes and played in the final group with Jordan Spieth on Saturday at the Masters before fading. He has dipped to third in the world behind Jason Day and Spieth.

“Yes, I’d like to think I’m very close to where I want to be,” McIlroy told the Observer in an email this week. “I haven’t secured a win this season and perhaps I let a couple slip away through the occasional bad shot or just a lapse in concentration. But I still feel the season’s very young and there are many opportunities out there, on courses I feel I have the game for, to put a couple of wins under my belt.”

Quail Hollow has long suited McIlroy’s big-hitting, yet accurate, style (his 15-under winning score in 2010 has only been eclipsed by his 21-under last year and by Anthony Kim’s 16-under in 2008).

Heavy rains on the course Monday and Tuesday have softened – and lengthened – Quail Hollow’s 7,575-yard layout even more to his liking. The course is expected to firm up the rest of the week with dry weather in the forecast.

“We talked about the length being a little bit more of a premium this year more than others,” said Rickie Fowler, who won the tournament in 2012. “But even so, if you can drive it a little bit further than other people and keep it in the fairway … and having shorter clubs in on this golf course definitely helps. With Rory, the weeks where he is driving it better, it’s decent for him, and if he is driving it really well, he’s always in contention – if not winning. So if he drives the ball well this week, he’s going to play well here as he’s done multiple times.”

McIlroy still doesn’t seem overly impressed with his record-breaking performance of 2015, one that included a 61 in the third round that separated him from the field.

“I guess when you shoot 11(-under) in one round, you have to be 10-under for the other three, so that helped,” McIlroy said.