There really could not be a better place than Quail Hollow for Rory McIlroy to saddle up and get back on the horse after yet another Masters post-mortem.
The North Carolina home to this week’s Wells Fargo Championship is as comforting to the Northern Irishman as that dog-eared and soggy blanket your toddler carried everywhere until it was surgically detached just before their first year in college.
And when you have walked away from Augusta National feeling down in the dumps like McIlroy was on his latest failed bid for a Masters Green Jacket and the career grand slam that continues to elude Europe’s most talented golfer, then there is nothing quite like the comforting caress of a welcoming and unquestioning blanky.
Long renowned as one of the golfers’ favourite stops on the PGA Tour, this week’s Wells Fargo returns to Quail Hollow after a year away when the course was given over to the 2017 PGA Championship and no-one will be happier about that than McIlroy.
This is his domain, a two-time winner here, the course record of 61 and this tournament’s all-time leading money winner with four other top-10 finishes to go with the victories.
If McIlroy could pack Quail Hollow up and bring it with him everywhere he went you can be sure he would be measuring up the hold of his private jet because the four-time major winner loves it around these 7,554 yards of golfing heaven in Charlotte. And in his first tournament since the Masters a month ago it represents the ideal starting point for the rest of the 2018 season.
Only five weeks ago, McIlroy seemed primed to finally get over the winning line at Augusta. A majestic victory at Bay Hill in the run-up to the first major of the year as the Holywood star began his year finally injury free and playing a heavier schedule pointed to a man, now 28 and embarking on his second decade as a touring professional, finally in the right space to conquer the course that has defied his will to win most often in those 10 years on the road.
His failure to hold onto a four-shot 54-hole lead there in 2011 had been the making of McIlroy everywhere else, the hurt propelling him to US Open victory a Congressional a few weeks later and onto a PGA at Kiawah Island in 2012 before that glorious summer of 2014 when the Open at Royal Liverpool, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and a second PGA, this time at Valhalla, were knocked off in successive starts.
The capture of the auld Claret Jug completed three quarters of the fabled career slam, previously claimed by only a handful of greats, from Sarazen and Hogan, through Player and Nicklaus to Tiger Woods but such was McIlroy’s dominance of his generation that he seemed destined to join the pantheon.
All it needed was a green jacket at the Masters and would be amongst the legends but as each year has gone by so too have his hopes. A fourth-place finish in 2015, then 10th, and seventh, and now, last month a tie for fifth.
This year’s trip down Magnolia Lane and out on to Washington Road will have perhaps been the most painful because McIlroy had given himself his first genuine chance of victory since that career-shaping final round back in 2011.
Three shots behind overnight leader Patrick Reed, the Irishman had been almost regal in his first three rounds around Augusta National, following a 69 and 71 with a 65 on the Saturday that signalled his intent to finally put this one to bed.
A shaky drive off the first that Sunday, though, suggested otherwise. Playing with his Ryder Cup sparring partner Reed, McIlroy failed to take advantage of the leader’s nerves and instead of closing the gap eventually faded away to a supporting role as Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler led the hunt of their fellow American in the Irishman’s absence.
Another chance slipped quietly away, leaving McIlroy with a closing 74, six off the pace and badly in need of a competitive pick me up.
Quail Hollow can provide the tonic. It is where Rory’s road to redemption begins. The Grand Slam may be gone for another year, but this week’s Wells Fargo, where he will celebrate his 29th birthday on Friday, is the chance to put that out of his mind and focus on his remaining challenge for the season, winning a first major championship since 2014.
The summer still beckons and there is a lot of golf still to be played, plenty of glory yet to be claimed and this week’s tournament in Charlotte provides McIlroy with the perfect launchpad. Next week’s Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s self-styled fifth major is the first of the big prizes in store for McIlroy, as is a return to Wentworth, outside London for the European Tour’s flagship tournament the BMW PGA Championship a fortnight later.
Who knows what a win this weekend will do for the rest of McIlroy’s 2018 campaign.