Last time we saw Rory McIlroy in action he was setting the clubhouse target at Augusta National in sensational style, holing out from the greenside bunker at the 18th for an 8-under-par 64 which equalled the final round record in the Masters. He later said that it “was as happy as I’ve ever been on a golf course right there”.
Can he maintain the momentum from that adrenalin rush? The good news is that he loves this week’s tournament. He’s played it 10 times, has missed just one cut, was T16th or better on the other nine occasions, including three wins and a play-off defeat. The first win came on debut – his breakthrough on the PGA Tour – and he’s the defending champion this week.
The bad news is that all that good golf came at Quail Hollow and this week the tournament makes a one-off move to TPC Potomac (because the former will be hosting the Presidents Cup later this year).
It’s a blow for McIlroy who said back in 2019 that he felt he could play well at Quail Hollow even when out of form – and he duly proved that when winning off a shocking set of results this time last year.
Potomac is a different kind of venue. In hosting the 2017 and 2018 Quicken Loans National it proved a fine fit for flushers of the ball, but of the neat and tidy variety rather than over-powering type such as McIlroy. Moreover, as a par-70 it has only two par-5s and the Northern Irishman likes to fuel his big weeks with par breakers on the long holes.
He’ll have his supporters this week, especially as the tournament has a weaker field than typically, but I’m wary at the prices. Here are three to take him on with.
There are only three world top 20 performers teeing it up this week. McIlroy we’ve already dealt with, Tony Finau is the second and his fine effort last week (runner-up in the Mexico Open) will tempt many. But it is the third of them who I lean towards because Abraham Ancer might be ranked third in the field, but the compilers make him the sixth most-likely winner and there’s a little value in that gap.
The wary will poo-poo his T42nd last week in his home championship, but the first Mexico Open on the PGA Tour schedule was always going to be a tough assignment for him with personal and national expectations sky high. Golf is a sport that has a nasty habit of rubbishing high expectations, whether it is a hacker teeing it up after one good round or a world class performer ramping up his hopes.
Often a golfer can be at his or her most dangerous when the pressure of high hopes have been dispelled and that’s a live possibility with Ancer this week, not least because the course should suit. He’s got a fine record at TPC River Highlands (three top 12s in his last three starts) and Colonial (T14th in his last two starts) – both par-70s that demand for solid tee-to-green work. And his win last year at TPC Southwind was based on an excellent long game. The clincher? He was fourth on the course in 2018, with a 65 in round one and a 62 on the third circuit.
Aussie Marc Leishman has an even better record at TPC River Highlands and Colonial than Ancer. He’s a past champion at the former, was third there last year and has missed only one cut in 11. At the latter he’s missed just the one cut in eight and, while he has no top 10, he has contended during the week five times.
Even more encouraging is his course form. He was fifth on debut in 2017, when opening and closing his account with 66s. Then he added 13th in 2018 when spending just about the entire week in the top 10. He’s missed just one strokeplay weekend this season and this looks a great chance for him to contend again.
2018 Potomac winner Francesco Molinari ranked first for both Approach and Tee to Green, and the man he succeeded, Kyle Stanley, was fourth and first in the same categories. Might that point to a man who keeps banging on the door for a fourth PGA Tour win?
Russell Henley tops the Strokes Gained Approach stats this year, his third consecutive season in the top three of that category. Tee to Green he ranks sixth and has been top 20 since 2020. Since late in that season he has held four 54-hole leads without converting the win. If he maintains his usual standards this week’s test might give him another opportunity to open that reluctant door.