Final round preview at the Wells Fargo Championship: Rory McIlroy hunting a Quail Hollow hat trick

After 54 holes of action Keith Mitchell leads, but McIlroy and Gary Woodland are leading the chase and only two shots back.

There was always a sense of deja vu about Rory McIlroy and the Wells Fargo Championship this week.

In one sense it's kind of inevitable because this tournament regularly coincides with his birthday and he loves the host course Quail Hollow - a good return is kind of guaranteed.

But it also went a little deeper than that: he was back at his favourite playground, but he'd forgotten how to have fun and he needed someone to remind him.

Back in 2010 he made his first journey to the tree-lined George Cobb design in Charlotte with a big reputation that was failing to live up to the hype.

A PGA Tour rookie, he hadn't make any impression in his first three starts and then missed the cut at both the Houston Open and the Masters.

Americans were muttering their suspicion about the European wonder kid and the doubts were given further fuel when he made the cut by just one stroke.

Questions, scepticism, whispers - sound familiar?

On that occasion his response was to clobber 66-62 on the weekend, win by four, cheerfully explain "I flushed it", and then trundle off to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Five years later he was struggling with the flat stick and what happened? A few words from putting coach Dave Stockton, a third round 61 and he wrapped up a seven shot lapping of the field on Sunday.

This year he was no rookie, but his form was terrible: he hasn't won since the end of 2019, hasn't made a top five since the start of the year, and hadn't broken 74 in his last five strokeplay rounds.

So he turned to respected swing coach Pete Cowen and putting expert Brad Faxon ahead of his latest trip to Quail Hollow.

A first round 72 was an improvement on recent returns, but it was a tentative step toward recovery, less so the Friday 66 that got him bang in the hunt, and his 4-under-par 68 on Saturday left him breathing down the neck of the 54-hole leader Keith Mitchell.

The 29-year-old leads on 9-under 204 after a 66 in the third round, but the winner of the 2019 Honda Classic has not one, but two, US Open champions on his shoulder - McIlroy shares second with Gary Woodland on 7-under 206.

Luke List is one blow further back, alone in fourth, with Satoshi Kodaira and Scott Stallings sharing fifth on 5-under.

Are we set for the ultimate Rory repeat? His 10th top 25 finish in 11 starts on the course is hopefully assured, but can he make it a hat trick of win in Charlotte?

Let's take a closer look at the leading contenders and the key stats.

Keith Mitchell - 1st on 9-under

During the third round commentary Jim Nantz revealed that Brandt Snedeker, Mitchell's partner in the recent Zurich Classic, had messaged him to say that, had the event been an individual one, Mitchell would have won by 10. He added that his driving performance was the best he'd ever seen on Tour.

Even allowing for a little giddy excitement about his friend's golf, that's solid praise and the stats back him up: Mitchell is first for Strokes Gained Off the Tee, fifth for hitting fairways and 10th for Distance.

That base is allowing him to also rank third for SG Tee to Green and seventh for Greens in Regulation.

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This is his first PGA Tour 54 hole lead, but he did share two on the second tier, finishing second and the sixth. The only previous time he found himself within two blows of the lead at this stage on the PGA Tour (that time he was one back in second) he won the Honda Classic.

He's carded 68 and 69 in his only two previous final rounds of the course.

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Rory McIlroy - T2nd on 7-under

The raw data shows that he's found a mere 16 fairways from 42 tee shots, but he noted himself that SG data would be more instructive "because I found a lot of first cuts": he's 13th for SG Off the Tee.

His best SG category is Putting (eighth) while in traditional data he scores highly in the long game (second for Distance, fifth for Scrambling, sixth for Greens in Regulation).

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In his worldwide career he is 6-for-24 at converting second at this stage into a win, but he has done it twice in the last three occasions.

He's 6-for-9 at breaking par in the final round at Quail Hollow with four of those efforts sub-70. He's been two shots back of the lead twice before, when ultimately losing the playoff in 2012 and when eighth in 2019.

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Gary Woodland - T2nd on 7-under

Oddly, he owes a little of his success this week to McIlroy because both take advice from Pete Cowen who is in town to see his new pupil so also got the chance to work one-on-one with Woodland.

His strength has been with his irons, ranking sixth for SG Approach.

He finished fourth at the course in 2015, one of two top 20s in nine starts, but his record on Sunday is not great: a 67 earned that top five six years ago, but it's the only time he's broken 72 and, despite it, he still averages 73.71 from seven circuits.

Incredibly, it's only the second time he's been second at this stage anywhere - last time he ended the week ninth.

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Key Quail Hollow stats

Six of the last seven winners at Quail Hollow have ranked top five on the par-4s and four of them led the category.

The last two winners ranked top two for both Putting Average and SG Putting, the two winners before them were top eight in both categories.

Long-hitters who are using the driver win here - hitting lengthy approaches into these greens usually takes it toll by the end of the week.

Conclusion and betting

The top three performers on the par-4s this week? The top three on the leaderboard and that trio are also top 10 for Driving Distance.

Mitchell ranks fifth for PA and 17th for SG Putting, Woodland 15th and 11th, McIlroy 38th and eighth.

Woodland's R4 record on the course is a worry, Mitchell will have spent last night and this morning in very new territory - this is a golden opportunity for McIlroy.

READ MORE: What they said: The best quotes ahead of the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship