By Doug Ferguson
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Phil Mickelson’s ball was just above the edge of the cart path, slightly below his feet, when he decided to hit a hard fade around the trees toward the green. The shot went out-of-bounds and cost him the outright lead Saturday in the Wells Fargo Championship, and Mickelson was angry about his decision.
He felt he should have hit driver instead of 3-wood.
In the group ahead of him, new leader Nick Watney hit a semi-shank with a 6-iron on the par-3 17th, the ball flying toward a hospitality tent. He made double bogey, and pulled his cap over his face when the round was over to hide a mixture of anger and embarrassment.
And these were the co-leaders going into the final round at Quail Hollow.
A series of blunders in the last hour of the third round shook up the Wells Fargo Championship, and the only consolation for Mickelson and the Davis High grad is that they were atop the leaderboard going into a final round that features a forecast of rain.
“Every shot is critical. You just can’t throw a bunch of shots away like I did coming down the stretch,” said Mickelson, who also plunked a spectator in the head with his approach on the 16th and made bogey. “I’m fortunate to still be on top.”
Mickelson had a 1-over 73, while Watney squandered a solid round with his shank that led to a 71. They were at 8-under 208, one shot ahead of George McNeill, who also dropped two shots over the last four holes for a 72.
“I can’t remember the last time I did that in a tournament, so it was a bit unsettling” Watney said about his shank. “The big picture? I’m tied for the lead, and I would have taken that on Thursday morning.”
Even so, what had been shaping up as duel now looks more like a shootout, with a dozen players within three shots of the lead.
One of them was Rory McIlroy, who celebrated his 24th birthday by missing seven putts in the 5-foot range or closer. He had a 73 and didn’t lose any ground on the lead.
“I think they may have given me a little bit of a birthday present right there,” McIlroy said. “I’m only three back heading into tomorrow, and that’s as good as I could ask for.”
John Senden completed his round of 67 some three hours before the leaders finished. Ryan Moore was right behind him with a 68. They were among six players who were tied for fourth, two shots behind. That group included Lee Westwood, who made two birdies and two bogeys in his otherwise boring round of 72.
The starting time for Sunday has been moved up because of rain in the forecast, with the final round starting at 6:45 a.m. Given the forecast, Mickelson treated Saturday like the final round in case Sunday — and perhaps even Monday — is a wash and the tournament is reduced to 54 holes. He made a 7-foot par putt on the 18th to tie Watney.
“It was some poor play coming down the stretch,” Mickelson said.
McIlroy didn’t need to be reminded that it was his birthday. Fans serenaded or shouted to him on just about every hole. If all he wanted was to make some putts, Boy Wonder didn’t get his wish. At times, it became a cruel joke.
He stuffed his shot into just inside 3 feet on the third hole and missed the birdie, and that was just the start of it. He missed another putt inside 3 feet that gave him a double bogey on the ninth hole. Add it up and McIlroy missed seven putts from the 5-foot range, along with a 7-foot putt on the eighth.
After all that, he’s still in the mix.
“I just couldn’t hole anything today,” McIlroy said. “I think when you miss a few putts on these greens, you sort of lose confidence in your stroke and then it’s just sort of hard to commit fully to what you want to do. If I want to hole some putts tomorrow, I need to do a better job of that.”
Mickelson was sailing right along after a 10-foot birdie putt on the 14th to reach 11-under for the outright lead. And it all changed so quickly. He pulled his tee shot on the par-5 15th well right of the fairway, just above a cart path. This 3-wood went straight instead of fading and went out-of-bounds.
“I got lucky on the tee shot that that didn’t go out-of-bounds, I missed it so bad,” Mickelson said. “But the second shot should not have been a problem. I probably pulled the wrong club. I hit it the second time with the driver to get it to cut. I should have done that the first time.”
In the group ahead of him, Watney faced about a 20-minute wait on the tee at the par-3 17th. When it was his turn to hit, Watney hit a semi-shank toward a hospitality tent that left nearly 80 yards short on the 207-yard hole. His next shot barely reached the green, and he three-putted for a double bogey.
Asked if he was more embarrassed or angry, Watney said, “A bit of both.”
“It’s a tough hole, and I’m sure guys hit shots they thought were good and it just hooked a little and went in the water and made double,” he said. “It just so happened that I’m playing really well and it was on TV, so that’s where the embarrassment comes from. But the other thing is you like to put as much distance as you can between you and the other guys, so a bit of anger and definitely some embarrassment.”
He tugged his cap over his face on the 18th green and shouted, not willing to share exactly what he said.
“If I have any chance of playing well tomorrow, I’m going to need to get past it and come out ready to go or else I’m going to get run over,” Watney said. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
McNeill was not immune. He sliced his tee shot on the 15th into the middle of a large tree, leaving him no choice but to punch out sideways on a par 5 that he couldn’t reach in two, anyway. He wound up reaching this green in four shots, missing a par putt from about 10 feet to drop pa shot.
McNeill at least wound up in the final group. And he’s not quite sure how he got there.
“Phil looked like he was kind of moving ahead of everyone, and then I don’t know what he did on 16, but it looked like either 15 or 16 he had kind of a mess-up,” McNeill said. “Then Nick, with the shot that he hit on 17, that actually shook me up probably more than it shook him up. … Honestly, I didn’t even know until I was standing on 18 green, and then I looked and I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m tied for the lead.’”
Not for long. He made bogey and fell one shot behind, still in the mix, along with so many others.