WE have another high-quality for the 11th staging of the event at Quail Hollow but with with Tiger Woods and other top-ranking players missing it doesn't quite have the strength of previous years.
Designed by George Cobb in 1961, Quail Hollow underwent an extensive renovation by Tom Fazio in 1997. There have been plenty of changes since last year's renewal and there will be even more again after it.
The distances of 10 holes have changed slightly, with a net result being a slight increase in length overall and there have been changes to three of the greens.
The 12th has been levelled out and the 8th and 10th have been resodded and that's had its complications. The 10th has had to be done twice and the second time was last week!
This will be the last year the players putt on creeping bentgrass here. The greens, which will be running at around 11 on the stimpmeter, will be ripped up after the tournament and replace with Bermuda in preparation for the PGA Championship to be held here in 2015.
Quail Hollow is famous for one of the toughest finishing stretches in the game and the last three holes are known as the Green Mile.
Although relatively short hitters, Jim Furyk and David Toms, have won here, length off the tee is usually a distinct advantage. Anywhere you see Anthony Kim's name on the roll of honour, the chances are accuracy off the tee isn't imperative and that's been the case here over the years.
Rickie Fowler ranked 2nd for fairways hit 12 months ago but was the first winner to rank inside the top 10 for that stat since Furyk in 2006 but with rain forecast on day one this year, accuracy may be more important off the tee. The rough won't be quite so easy to play out of and finding the fairways will certainly help, in the early stages at least.
Only two of the 10 winners to date have ranked outside the top 11 for Greens In Regulation so accurate iron play is key, as is good scrambling.
Lucas Glover got himself into the play-off two years ago by getting up and down from off the green on four of the last five holes.
As touched on above, with a wet day forecast on Thursday and unseasonably cool conditions, anyone who can drive it long and straight is going to have a huge advantage and the Total Driving stats might prove a great place to start when looking for title contenders.
Assuming the rain does arrive on day one, we're going to be left with a damp course and slower than normal greens. I'm immediately thinking Rory McIlroy – remember what he did at Congressional on rain-softened greens in the US open in 2011?
This is a course where the cream tends to rise to the top. Of the 10 winners to date, six are Major champions and of the four who haven't (yet) won a biggie, without being disrespectful to surprise 2004 winner Joey Sindelar, three of them, Sean O'Hair, Kim and Fowler are top-class performers.
Of late a bit of a trend has emerged with the game's very best young guns blazing the trail. Kim, Rory and Rickie all won their first PGA Tour titles here.
The stats say it's not an easy place to make the running. Furyk, who beat Trevor Immelman (another Major winner) in a playoff in 2006, is the only first-round leader to go on to win.
Tiger Woods is the only halfway leader to taste success and only three third-round leaders have gone on to win – Sergio Garcia gave up a six-shot 54-hole lead in 2005! Taking on the pacesetters after each round could result in a cracking book come Sunday evening.
McIlroy heads the market at what is still a very fair price. His form figures here read 1-MC-2 but I'm more than happy to forgive the middle effort. Not only was he defending the title two years ago but was also playing for the first time after his infamous collapse at the US Masters and I can readily dismiss that performance.
This course clearly suits Rory's eye, the rain-softened conditions will be in his favour and sooner rather than later he has to chalk up a W in 2013. With the absence of Woods and others the field isn't as strong as it might be and at anything above 9.0, is a great bet.
Second favourite Lee Westwood is exactly the right person to not only drive it long here but also to drive it accurately but his putting is a weak link and he looks woefully short to me.
Phil Mickelson has a tremendously consistent record here but still hasn't won the event. He's now a year older and in contrast to Rory this year's conditions won't help his cause. Lefty putts and scrambles around firm fast greens as well as anyone else on the planet but when those greens are slowed by rain his skills are negated somewhat and unusually for me I'm more than happy to pass him up.
Webb Simpson has both course and current form but always looks on the short side to me and at just 20.0 that's again the case this week.
The second, third and fourth favourites, detailed above, are all as near as damn twice the price of McIlroy but for my money Rory's more than twice as likely to win the event than any of them are, and as already stated, his price is more than fair.
For about 20 minutes on Monday night, Betfair Fixed Odds market quoted 76.0 about 2011 champ, Lucas Glover, and mercifully I spotted it. He was in fine form last week at the Zurich Classic where he finished tied 4th, has a solid bank of Quail Hollow form, is the only man to have shot four rounds in the 60s at the event and even at his current price of 55.0, he has to be respected.
After that, I've backed a couple of huge outsiders in Rory Sabbatini and Bobby Gates. Both have shown form of late and both have played well here before.
Rory McIlroy @ 11.0
Lucas Glover @ 75.0
Rory Sabbatini @ 230.0
Bobby Gates @ 240.0