If there is one American golf course Rory McIlroy would have hated missing during golf’s current Covid-19 shutdown you would get pretty short odds on it being Quail Hollow.
In a world without a pandemic, this weekend would have seen the parkland beauty in its pomp as the PGA Tour made its annual visit to the country club in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And no golfer would have been more excited about going there than McIlroy, the world number one, given his tremendous record in what is now the Wells Fargo Championship.
It is a love affair that stretches back to this day 10 years ago, when then fresh-faced Holywood star in the making, two days shy of his 21st birthday, made his introductions to United States golf with a maiden PGA Tour victory by four strokes over Phil Mickelson.
He did it in style, too, with a monster 43-foot putt at the 72nd hole for a final-round, 10-under-par 62 to land what was then known simply as the Quail Hollow Championship.
His title defence in 2011 would see him miss the cut but that would be the only black mark in nine appearances at the tournament. Seven top 10 finishes and a tie for 16th have followed, including a play-off defeat to another first-time PGA Tour winner in Rickie Fowler in 2012 and a repeat victory in 2015 which saw him become the only multiple winner in the tournament’s history, achieved with an event-record 21-under-par 267 and a course-record 61 in the third round.
And it all started a decade ago today.
“It was just one of those days, everything went right and it never crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to go out and shoot a great score,” McIlroy would say in a post-round interview with Sirius XM’s Michael Collins that followed his 62.
Yet his debut appearance at Quail Hollow had not begun in promising circumstances.
Rounds of 72 and 73 had left McIlroy scraping into the weekend right on the cut number thanks to an eagle at the par-5 seventh, his 16th of the second round, but the Irishman turned things around in brilliant fashion over the third and fourth rounds. He shot a 66 on the Saturday to move into a tie for seventh, four strokes back on overnight leader Billy Mayfair. The veteran American had opened up with a pair of 68s but his third-round 71 was the beginning of the end and Mayfair would close out with a 76 to slip into a tie for 14th.
McIlroy, though, was on a very different trajectory. Four birdies on the front nine of Sunday’s final round put him in position but it was an incredible back nine that set him apart from Mickelson and the rest of the field.
While his maiden European Tour victory a year earlier at the Dubai Desert Classic had been an understandably nervy affair, a one-stroke win over Justin Rose having survived three back-nine bogeys, Quail Hollow was a march to glory.
Everything clicked for McIlroy, his trademark laser-sighted iron play a joy to behold, starting on the back nine with an approach shot out of the short rough from 146 yards out on the 11th to within a few feet for birdie.
There was some luck. At 14, McIlroy hit a 5-wood off the tee into trouble only to end up with a favourable lie in the sand. His next shot ended up on a downward slope but the approach was a good one followed by an equally satisfying putt that delivered an unlikely birdie.
Then came the fireworks. The par-five 15th began with McIlroy crushing a 352-yard drive, left just over 200 to the hole.
“The two shots into 15, I think they sort of summed up my day,” he said. “I killed the drive down there and then hit the nicest little cut 5-iron in there to three feet.” The short putt for eagle took him to 13 under par and into a three-shot lead over Mickelson heading to Quail Hollow’s famous closing stretch, the Green Mile.
“I knew then. I thought I could just par my way in, which would have been good, and then birdied 16 and 18 as well.” Having made the turn at four under, McIlroy would close with a back-nine 30 that saw him play the final five holes in five-under.
His second shot to the 16th was a thing of beauty, out of a fairway bunker, flirting with the hole and rolling by to around five feet.
“It was a perfect number, 167 into the breeze, hit 7-iron and I knew if I just left it anywhere short right of the pin it was great and it just drew right onto the pin.”
At 17, McIlroy’s putter began to take its turn in the spotlight, a 50-footer skirting the cup before the Irishman closed out in style at 18, draining his 43-foot putt before letting rip with a fist pump to mark his maiden PGA Tour victory.
“I definitely felt like I was playing good golf but just not getting anything out of it. Put my old putter in the bag Friday night and it worked pretty well at the weekend so I think that will be staying in for a little while longer.
“But it’s just incredible. To finish off a golf tournament of this stature like that, on this golf course where so many great players have won before, it’s incredible. I just feel so happy and so privileged to be able to play on a course like this and be able to win here with such a good field.” It was all laid out in front of McIlroy that day.
This Monday will be his 31st birthday and with 26 further tournament wins worldwide, including four major championships, a couple of FedEx Cup titles and the world number one ranking back in his possession there is much success to celebrate. He will no doubt also reflect on the part that thrilling final round at Quail Hollow played in the story.