Martin Kaymer obliterated a strong field in Abu Dhabi in January, and claimed the No. 1 ranking in February. A lot has happened since then, and Kaymer, 26, hasn't been happy with his game since he opened with a dispiriting 78 at last month's Masters.
Rory McIlroy, who turned 22 Wednesday, lost the Masters with a comprehensive back-nine collapse. The Ryder Cup teammates will look to get back to their winning ways at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow this week, when five of the top 10 players in the world, and nine of the top 20, will be in action.
"For 63 holes I led the golf tournament," McIlroy said in a press conference Tuesday in which he was asked 15 questions that addressed his Masters collapse, "and it was just a bad back nine, which — a very bad back nine that sort of took the tournament away from me, I suppose. But what can you do? There are three more majors this year and hopefully dozens more that I'll play in my career."
Although McIlroy said his problems were mental (he made a late double-bogey to finish third in the next week's Malaysian Open), he missed a handful of short putts at Augusta and has been working on his stroke with Dave Stockton at Quail Hollow.
Kaymer is of a different mind, and targeting his whole swing. After he tied for ninth in Malaysia, he met his coach in Germany for a week of work before flying to Scottsdale, Ariz., for more practice last week.
"I just felt like I needed some time to spend with my coach again," said Kaymer, who tied for 11th in his only other start at Quail Hollow, in 2009. "I would like to get my swing going again. We've been changing a few things in the last months now. Nothing major, just the backswing, to get a little bit closer on plane, shorten it a little bit."
Phil Mickelson, last year's runner-up at Quail, is making his first start since the Masters. His record at the revered North Carolina course is like his record at the U.S. Open: He's done everything but win, compiling six top-12 finishes, including four top-fives, in seven starts. At fourth in the World Ranking, he's still six places ahead of fellow lefty Bubba Watson, but Watson is the hotter player, having won for the second time this year in New Orleans last weekend. Watson tied for second at the 2009 Wells Fargo.
Eighth-ranked Paul Casey is the field's fifth and final top-10 player, as Tiger Woods withdrew with injuries to his left leg last week.
Arnold Palmer is scheduled to play in the pro-am Wednesday with his grandson, Sam Saunders, who got a sponsor's exemption into the tournament, and Palmer's pal, Quail Hollow Club President John W. Harris.
The Wells Fargo is one of the toughest non-major tests of the year on the PGA Tour, with Quail's long, watery final three holes, the so-called Green Mile, causing considerable havoc. Many have compared the course to a U.S. Open test, and it will host the 2017 PGA Championship. McIlroy's 10-under 62 in the final round last year was atypically low, as was his third-round 66, for that matter. He was one over for his first two rounds and barely made the cut, only to catch fire and finish 15 under for the week.
Still a few days from his 21st birthday, McIlroy was the youngest Tour winner since Tiger Woods, also 20, won the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. "That's how you close out a tournament," McIlroy told Lee Westwood, who had hung around to congratulate the kid from Northern Ireland. But now Westwood — not in this week's field at Quail — has won in his last two starts, and McIlroy is struggling to close out tournaments.
Kaymer is looking for the player who blew away the field by eight strokes in Abu Dhabi to start this season. On Tuesday, when asked about McIlroy, Kaymer brought up the European Tour's 2007 Scandinavian Masters, which was about to become the young German's first win until he double-bogeyed the final hole to lose by one.
"It's always a learning thing," Kaymer said. "It doesn't matter what you do, if you screw up a tournament or if you win a tournament. I'm sure if Rory has some good people around him, then he will figure out what the reason was and he will learn from it, and he will handle the next Masters or the next major when he's leading again a little bit better."
Seniors play first major
Tom Lehman has a 212-point lead over John Cook in the race for the Charles Schwab Cup, but points are doubled for top-10 finishes at major championships, including this week's event, the Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek Golf Club in Birmingham, Ala. Fred Funk, the defending champion, Michael Allen and Tom Pernice Jr., are all coming off missed cuts in New Orleans last week. Cook was in Las Vegas to help his friend Woods put on the annual Tiger Jam charity concert.
Watson repays Nationwide tour
It'll be a busy week for Bubba Watson, who earned his call-up to the PGA Tour by finishing 21st on the 2005 Nationwide money list, ending a three-year stint on the developmental circuit. In addition to playing the Wells Fargo in Charlotte, the University of Georgia alumnus Watson is an honorary co-chair, with fellow UGA alum Chip Beck, of this week's Stadion Classic at UGA on the Nationwide tour.
Watson was a member of Georgia's 2000 SEC Championship-winning team. As a member of the 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup team, he was given $50,000 to donate to a college or university of his choice as part of the Play Golf America University program, and he chose Georgia as the beneficiary. (Watson was also a junior college All-American at Faulkner State Community College in Alabama.)
As Watson edged Webb Simpson in a playoff in New Orleans on Sunday, a left-handed Monday qualifier, Ted Potter Jr., was winning the South Georgia Classic by three over Mathew Goggin. Potter, who missed the cut in all 24 of his Nationwide starts in 2004, became the first Monday-qualifier to win since Kyle Reifers at the 2006 Chattanooga Classic, and secured his status on the Nationwide through 2012.
At the complete opposite end of the field was John Smoltz, who shot 84-87 last week to finish last in his first start on the Nationwide tour. Appearing on Golf Channel's Morning Drive show, he compared his performance to his first outing as a closing pitcher, when he gave up eight runs. "Humiliating baseball experiences made me a better person and a better ball player," he said. "I will be a better golfer having gone through what I did and dealing with what I dealt with, versus coming out there and surprising the world. I will [play again in a Tour-sanctioned event], absolutely, if the opportunity presents itself. But I've got a lot of work to do."
Jimenez eyes national open
Miguel Angel Jimenez is 47, but he's still playing great golf, as his runner-up finish to Westwood last week attests. He'll be at Real Club de Golf El Prat for the Open de Espana this week, where winning may require not just unseating the defending champion, Alvaro Quiros, but also besting 18-year-old Matteo Manassero of Italy.
El Prat is a target golf course, which Manassero says suits his game. A victory this week would be his third overall in Europe, and his second in as many months.
"I am playing well and I like the course," he said.
Greg Norman designed the 7,296-yard, par-72.
The National Golf Foundation reports the number of golfers fell for the third straight year, from 27.1 million in 2009 to 26.1 million in 2010. Meanwhile the number of off-course golf retail stores fell by 154. … Jerry Pate donated hundreds of chainsaws from his Toro dealership to help clean up tornado damage in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. He and Condoleezza Rice will be honorary starters at the Regions Tradition. … Jack Nicklaus, Gil Morgan and defending champ Fred Funk are the only multiple winners of the event. … The seniors will take a break after this week only to return to action for another major, the Senior PGA Championship, May 26-29. … Jay Haas Sr. and Jay Haas Jr. will play in the Nationwide tour's BMW Charity Pro-Am, May 19-22. The tournament is played on three courses in South Carolina, including Jay Haas's longtime home course, the Thornblade Club in Greenville. The father and son also both played in the 2006 Wells Fargo Championship.