AFTER a year away from Quail Hollow, the Wells Fargo Championship returns to its traditional home this week.
And there is no escaping the feeling that big-time golf action is also back after a post-Masters lull.
When any event attracts Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Masters champion Patrick Reed, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and the old maestros Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, you know the silverware will be hard-won come Sunday night.
All of those superstars – and more besides – tee it up in North Carolina this week at the host venue for last summer’s US PGA Championship, and while the field is just short of Major quality, it is not far off at all.
Next week’s Players Championship will be on the minds of some, but the Wells Fargo is a massive prize to win and those towards the head of the market will be dialled in right from the start tomorrow evening.
Brian Harman is the defending champion, having taken last year’s renewal at nearby Eagle Point, but in a way Thomas feels more like the holder having won on this course in August, when arguably the best player in the world over the last year claimed his first Major by lifting the Wanamaker Trophy.
Quail Hollow was extensively remodelled in preparation for that one, with one of the hardest courses on the PGA Tour schedule made even tougher.
Thomas won at eight-under, with only 12 players finishing under par, and while the track won’t be set up to play quite as hard this time, scoring records are unlikely to tumble.
Which brings us nicely to McIlroy, the Quail Hollow course record holder, who makes his reappearance after a bitterly disappointing final round at Augusta almost a month ago.
With the career Grand Slam within range having played himself into a great position over the first three days, the Holywood man’s challenge petered out on the Sunday as his putter went cold and the rest of his game followed.
Yet, with the benefit of a few weeks to reflect, McIlroy will surely feel there is plenty to be positive about, not least a return to action at a course which has treated him very well indeed over the years.
He goes in as 8/1 favourite this week and it is hard to look past him as the likeliest winner given his love affair with the venue.
The world number seven claimed his first PGA Tour event here eight years ago, coming from way off the pace with a closing 62 to beat Phil Mickelson by four shots.
Two years later only an inspired Fowler denied him after a play-off, while in 2015 McIlroy destroyed the course and a quality field, a third round 61 paving the way for a seven-shot success that showcased just how good he can be when things are working as they should.
It is little wonder he has decided to make his return this week, and while an almost month-long lay-off is a slight concern, I’m confident he will come out determined to right the wrongs of Augusta.
Not that a fifth in a Major, coming on the back of a win at Bay Hill on his previous strokeplay outing, is terribly wrong at all.
This is a revamped course from the one he has won on the past, but the infamous ‘Green Mile’ closing stretch remains the same, and he did manage to finish 22nd in the US PGA despite being badly hampered by the rib problem that blighted his 2017.
McIlroy is in much better nick coming in this time and at 8/1 he has to be backed, while 888sport go 9/4 about a top-five finish which does have the look of a lovely safety net given how strong the field is.
Compelling cases can also be made for Thomas and Fowler, who follow McIlroy in the betting at best prices of 12/1 and 14/1 respectively.
However, having picked the favourite I can’t really put them up as well, although I might just find myself looking for a couple of reverse forecast bets before the off tomorrow.
At slightly bigger odds, I find it hard to get away from the claims of Reed, who looks a stonking each-way bet at the very least at the 22/1 offered by Boylesports.
The newly-crowned Masters champion is not likely to do a Danny Willett and fade into obscurity on the back of a breakthrough Major success.
Reed (left) believes he is the best around and is determined to prove it, so he will keep the foot to the floor this week and beyond.
He was joint-second to Thomas at the US PGA last year, and is playing better than ever now.
His last five events – including the World Match Play and the pairs format at New Orleans last week – have seen him finish in the top-10, and he is virtually certain to give another good account of himself here, so the 22/1 is eye-catching indeed.
That is also the case with the 40/1 quotes about Louis Oosthuizen, who shared second alongside Reed here last August.
The South African saves his best for the big events, and while this isn’t a Major it will surely capture his attention and he also comes here in great form, having tied for third alongside Charl Schwartzel in New Orleans on Sunday.
That comes on the back of a very decent 12th at Auguata, and such is the quality of his long game that Oosthuizen should be towards the head of the leaderboard.
Boylesports go 40/1 and will pay seven places so he is a no-brainer for the each-way list, while Webb Simpson should likewise be considered at 50s with Ladbrokes.
The North Carolina native and Quail Hollow member is in very decent form, recording a best-ever 20th at Augusta before tying for fifth at the RBC Heritage, and he has course form as well as local knowledge to his credit.
Simpson was a distant second to McIlroy in 2015, while he just missed out on the play-off won by Fowler three years earlier.
Finally, 2009 champion Sean O’Hair might be worth a small tickle at 100/1 generally.
The streaky Texan has found his game in recent times, with a seventh at Bay Hill followed by a runner-up finish in his native state at the Valero Texas Open 10 days ago.
At the prices he has to be worth looking at, although this big-time event deserves a big-name winner.
Rory McIlroy could well be that man.
Rory Mcilroy, 8/1 (General); top-five finish 9/4 (888sport)
Patrick Reed, e/w, 22/1 (Boylesports)
Louis Oosthuizen, e/w, 40/1 (Boylesports)
Webb Simpson, e/w, 50/1 (Ladbrokes)
Sean O’Hair, e/w, 100/1 (General); top-20 finish, 4/1 (Paddy Power)
LIVERPOOL put their Champions League semi-final to bed against Roma at Anfield last week, only to open the door again by conceding two late goals.
However, too much has been made of the last 20 minutes, and too little of the 70 that went before it, as Jurgen Klopp’s men destroyed a very decent side with constant pressing and unbelievable pace.
The Reds won the tie once last Tuesday night, and they can do it again tonight in Rome, although in all honesty they have already booked their spot in the final in Kiev on May 26 – the bookies go no bigger than 1/14 about them qualifying.
Roma did not know what hit them either side of half-time at Anfield, but they really should have been more clued in to the threat of the magnificent Mo Salah (right) as they sold him to Liverpool last summer.
There is a sense of nervousness amongst Reds fans ahead of the return leg, based mostly on the fact Roma overturned a three-goal deficit on their own patch against Barcelona in the last eight, and also owing a little to the presence of Dejan Lovren in the centre of defence.
The Italians also defeated Chelsea 3-0 in the group stages before Christmas, and Edin Dzeko poses a proper threat, while they’ve yet to concede at home in Europe this season.
That said, they haven’t faced an attack in the form of Liverpool’s and I simply can’t see the visitors not scoring.
Much has been made about the big European nights being back at Anfield, but Klopp’s men have been every bit as good on the road, scoring 18 times in five games, and Salah and Roberto Firmino could prove too much for the Roma rearguard again.
Reds fans shouldn’t be worrying about their side qualifying, but rather should be backing them at 6/4 (Paddy Power) to win tonight, much in the same way as they did at Man City in the last round.
They might have to soak up early pressure but can strike on the break to put things to bed.
Sky Bet go 9/4 about both teams scoring and Liverpool winning, which is very appealing, while I wouldn’t put anyone off a wager on another 2-1 away win for Klopp’s side at 9/1 generally.
Liverpool to beat Roma, 6/4 (Paddy Power); both teams to score and Liverpool to win, 9/4 (Sky Bet); Liverpool to win 2-1, 9/1 (General)