POTOMAC, Md.: Wearing black rain pants on a soggy, foggy Wednesday morning, Rory McIlroy still had a bounce in his step and plenty of reasons to smile as he chatted with reporters, signed autographs and posed for selfies outside the clubhouse at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm.
He is coming off a career-best runner-up finish at the Masters, thanks to a brilliant closing 64, and he has plenty of good memories from the Maryland suburbs of Washington. A mile to the east at Congressional, McIlroy played what he still describes as the best golf of his life, an eight-shot victory in the 2011 US Open.
“I was driving in here yesterday morning and going along whatever road that is and I looked left and I thought, ‘That looks like Congressional. Oh, that is Congressional,’” McIlroy said. “So, good vibes, obviously, from this area.”
McIlroy, who turned 33 on Wednesday, has a more recent title to defend this week at the Wells Fargo Championship, although he’ll have to do it on a course where he’s never competed. His victory last year was his third at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina, but the tournament is making a one-year detour to TPC Potomac while its regular venue prepares to host the Presidents Cup in September.
McIlroy professes himself a fan of the tree-lined, trouble-heavy layout that’s had a mixed reputation during 35 years as an on-and-off PGA Tour venue.
“It’s just a solid golf course. You can’t really fake it around here,” McIlroy said. “You’ve got to hit the ball really well. Green complexes are tricky, pretty small targets. The rough maybe isn’t up as much as they usually have it here because of the time of year, but overall, really solid test.”
And a wet one, thanks to an inch of rain that fell in the early morning hours Wednesday. More rain is expected Friday and Saturday, along with cool temperatures and strong wind this weekend.
McIlroy won his four major championships in relatively soggy conditions, cementing a reputation as a mudder that he thinks is a bit unfair.
“I’ve won 30 times around the world. Not all those weeks were wet and rainy,” he said. “I think I’m pretty good in most conditions.”
He’s the chief attraction at TPC Potomac during a stretch of the PGA Tour schedule when top players are choosy about where they play, with three major championships looming in the next 10 weeks. McIlroy at No. 7 is the highest-ranked player in the field, followed by Tony Finau (No. 18) and Abraham Ancer (No. 20).
And if McIlroy was a bit overlooked heading into the Masters, the roars that accompanied his final shot on Sunday — a hole-out from a greenside bunker — reminded everyone of his star quality and still-immense potential.
“It gives me comfort knowing that my game is there,” McIlroy said. “I got a lot of confidence from that round on Sunday. I did a lot of great things. It’s something to definitely build on over the next few weeks.”
He will be grouped Thursday and Friday with veterans Webb Simpson and Francesco Molinari, who has his own good memories around here. Molinari shot a final-round 62 for an eight-shot victory in the last PGA Tour event at TPC Potomac, the 2018 Quicken Loans National. Three weeks later, he won his only major at the British Open, both times holding off a contending Tiger Woods.
The following year at the Masters, Molinari’s tee shot into the water on the par-3 12th allowed Woods to seize control. That was the start of a precipitous decline for the Italian, who comes in ranked 203rd in the world.
Simpson missed seven weeks early this year with a neck injury and has fallen to 45th in the rankings. He said he’s roughly tripled his time in the gym before rounds to keep his neck loose. He’s also missing the easy commute to Quail Hollow, his home club.
“It was 20 minutes this morning, versus two,” Simpson said.