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Little-known players contending at Wells Fargo Championship, but big names lurk

Aaron Wise follows through on his second shot from the 18th fairway during Friday’s second round of the Wells Fargo Championship.
Aaron Wise follows through on his second shot from the 18th fairway during Friday’s second round of the Wells Fargo Championship. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Wells Fargo Championship is known for occasionally producing young winners who aren’t exactly household names on the PGA Tour, much less across the general sports landscape.

Remember Derek Ernst in 2013, James Hahn in 2016 or Brian Harman in 2017?

So how about Peter Malnati or Aaron Wise for this year’s championship?

malnati-cheers
Peter Malnati acknowledges the cheers of a fan on Friday during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Malnati shot a 3-under-par 68 Friday and is 7 under for the tournament, good for a one-shot Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Malnati, who’s won on the PGA Tour once, shot a 3-under-par 68 Friday for 7 under for the tournament, good for a one-shot lead over Wise – a 21-year-old who turned pro after he won the NCAA championship at Oregon in 2016.

There’s plenty of big-name firepower lurking, however. Jason Day, the world’s 14th-ranked player, is tied with Wise for second. England’s Paul Casey and South Africa’s Charl Schwarzel, two veterans with 31 victories around the world between them, are tied for fourth, another shot back.

But the Wells Fargo has been a tournament for breakthrough victories for young players, and either Malnati or Wise both might poised to do so this year.

Malnati, who started the day one shot out of the lead, got his round going when he birdied the treacherous 18th hole (his ninth), then birdied again on No. 1. He scrambled on the ninth (his last) hole, when he hit his approach shot into a bunker. His shot out of the sand barely cleared the lip of the bunker, and an astonished Malnati watched the ball settle 6 feet from the hole for what turned out to be a routine par.

Jason Day
Jason Day moved into contention at the Wells Fargo Championship when he holed a shot from the bunker on No. 10 for an eagle. He finished with a 67 and is a shot out of the lead. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“At no point at impact did I think that was clearing the lip,” said Malnati. “Then it clears the lip and lands in (what) was a perfect shot. But it was pretty scary when I hit it.”

Wise played a steady round, with five birdies and bogeys on fourth and seventh holes. He and Wise will be the final pairing Saturday, a situation neither of them is accustomed to.

“I have a chance to this weekend to feel those nerves,” said Wise. “It’s going to be great and I’m going to learn from it and hopefully go out there and keep doing what I’m doing.”

Five who mattered

Malnati: Started the day one shot out of the lead and improved on that to take the outright lead after shooting a 3-under 68.

Wise: Tied for second place with Jason Day after leading for much of the day, but a bogey on No. 7 allowed Malnati to take the lead.

Day: Moved into contention when he holed a shot from the bunker on No. 10 for an eagle. He finished with a 67 and is a shot out of the lead.

Bryson DeChambeau: His 65 was the best round of the day. He went birdie-birdie-eagle on Nos. 13-15 and is five shots behind Malnati.

peterson
John Peterson lines up a putt during Thursday’s first round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

John Peterson: First-round leader ballooned to a 6-over 77. He had six bogeys and a double bogey to drop to even-par for the tournament, seven behind the leader.

Observations

▪ Tiger Woods made the cut at 2 over. His putter let him down for much of his 2-over round of 73. His only birdie came on the ninth hole, his last of the day, when he made a 13-foot putt.

▪ Justin Thomas is tied for 28th and needs to finish 12th or better to take over the world No. 1 spot from Dustin Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. Thomas, who shot a 2-under 69 Friday, won the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in 2017.

▪ Sam Saunders, the grandson of golf legend Arnold Palmer, had an excellent day that could have been better. Saunders finished with a 2-under 69 and is tied for seventh, four shots out of the lead. A rough stretch that included a bogey on No. 16, double bogey on 17 and bogey on 1 (he started on the 10th hole) was damaging.

Worth mentioning

▪ Thomas wasn’t happy with his putting during Thursday’s first round, so he asked his good friend and playing partner Rickie Fowler if he could borrow one of his backup putters.

fowler-thomas
Rickie Fowler, left, let good friend Justin Thomas, right, use his backup putter during Friday’s second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“He came out and wanted to hit some with it (Friday) morning,” Fowler said. “I actually didn’t see him until about 10 minutes before our tee time and he said he was going with it. I told him after he hit his first tee shot, ‘Well, you’re kind of stuck with it.’ “

Thomas played better Friday, shooting a 2-under 69. His performance on the greens improved marginally, going from 31 putts Thursday to 29 on Friday.

“It was that desperate in terms of how I was feeling over the putter,” Thomas said. “I’ve gone to my backup before, but my backup even felt so bad in my hands. I just had to do something else.”

Fowler wasn’t sure he’ll let Thomas keep the putter, even though they’re neighbors in Jupiter, Fla.

“Well, he lives just down the street, so it won’t be too far away,” Fowler said. “But if he keeps making putts, I might have to take it back. If he wants to keep using it, he’s stuck with having my name on the back of it.”

▪ Friday ended nervously for Tom Hoge, who was cruising along at even par for the tournament through his first 16 holes. But Hoge made double-bogey on No. 8 (his 17th hole of the day), the bogeyed No. 9 to finish 3 over, barely making the cut.

▪  Two local players made the cut. Charlotte’s Webb Simpson, who doesn’t have much of a commute to the tournament considering his house is on the Quail Hollow course, shot a 1-under 70 and is even for the tournament. Gastonia’s Harold Varner III shot a 72 for a second day and is 2-over.

Rory McIlroy
Two-time Wells Fargo champion Rory McIlroy watches the flight of his drive off the 18th tee during Friday’s second around at Quail Hollow Club. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

▪ Two-time Wells Fargo winner Rory McIlroy understandably wasn’t happy with his 76, which left him 2 over for the tournament and nine strokes back.

They said it

“They’re not holding the ball very well.” – Schwartzel, on the firmness of the greens.

“Why did I miss? Because they didn’t go in.” – Casey, on missing birdie putts on the 17th (9 feet) and 18th (13 feet) holes.

“I’ve been trying to kind of embrace just being a little more calm and relaxed this week.” -- Malnati.

“The PGA (Championship) definitely tipped it over the edge.” -- Day, on how playing the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in 2017 influenced his decision to play the Wells Fargo for just the third time.

Saturday’s forecast

Mostly cloudy, high of 84, 20 percent chance of rain.

David Scott: @davidscott14

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