By DOUG FERGUSON
2014-05-01 06:42 AM
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) -- Quail Hollow had the energy of a major when it first returned to the PGA Tour schedule 11 years ago.
Now it's gearing up to host the real thing -- the 2017 PGA Championship -- with new grass on the greens and an exciting renovation of its daunting, three-hole closing stretch known as the "Green Mile."
"It's a beautiful test of golf," Phil Mickelson said Wednesday. "There is not much you can do to this tournament to make it better."
All that's lacking is a major field for the Wells Fargo Championship.
Mickelson and Rory McIlroy are on opposite sides of the draw when the tournament gets started Thursday, and any event would love to have those two stars. But they are the only players from the top 10, and while that's one more than last year, it's a mighty change from the time when Quail Hollow once attracted everyone from the top 10, and 27 of the top 30 in the world.
Some of that is scheduling.
There has been only a two-week gap between Augusta National and Quail Hollow the last two years, instead of a three-week break. That's a product of how the calendar falls, and in golf, the calendar is built around the Masters being held the first full week in April. Masters champion Bubba Watson won't return until next week.
Some of it has to do with injuries. Tiger Woods is a regular at Quail Hollow (and a past champion), but he is recovering from back surgery. Jason Day is sitting this week out to let his injured left thumb fully heal.
More players are involved in corporate programs with RBC (Hilton Head) and Zurich (New Orleans), and The Players Championship with its $10 million purse is next week. Others, such as Jordan Spieth, have back-to-back events in their native Texas after The Players.
And perhaps there is the memory of last year, when a combination of factors led to the bent greens having large patches of no grass. Nine players withdrew the week of the tournament. Even with new greens that roll beautifully, it usually takes at least a year for the grass to fully settle.
"I think some players probably wanted to wait a year and maybe play someplace they haven't played," Mickelson said. "But I was so excited to come and see it, because I just knew that they were going to get it right, and they sure did. It's really fun to play."
For now, Mickelson and McIlroy are eager to embark on what amounts to the second stage of the season. The Masters is over. The U.S. Open looms just over a month away. And it starts with a tournament that keeps trying to get better even when it was great.
"For how new the greens are, I think they're in fantastic shape, especially after what happened to the greens last year," McIlroy said. "It's obviously a great improvement, and I'm sure they will be looking toward the PGA in '17. They will be perfect."