Consider the Wells Fargo Championship wide open on Sunday – with one caveat.
If Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy keep doing what they started doing Saturday, either one of them might just make the tournament their own.
J.B. Holmes, who shot a 6-under-par 66, is the third-round leader at 13-under 203, one shot better than second-round co-leader Martin Flores, who shot 69.
But it was Mickelson, who flirted with the tournament record, and 2010 champ McIlroy who injected an extra shot of life into the tournament on a warm and sunny day at Quail Hollow Club.
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Mickelson shot a 9-under 63 – one stroke off the record – to jump into third place, two strokes behind Holmes. McIlroy, who had narrowly made the cut after two nondescript rounds, put together a 65 and is seven back at 6-under.
Nine players are within six shots of Holmes, including Kevin Kisner, who is fourth at 10-under.
McIlroy leads a pack of 11 who are tied for 11th. Included in that group is Angel Cabrera, who led after the first round and tied with Flores for the second-round lead. He fell back with a 3-over 75.
The long-hitting Holmes, a two-time Tour winner, is only a few years removed from having brain surgery to correct vertigo-like symptoms. He had just one bogey Saturday and on one of his birdie holes – the par-5 15th – he let loose with a 352-yard drive.
“Any time you get a chance to win a tournament, it’s a great tournament,” Holmes said.
It was a great day for Mickelson, who has never won the Wells Fargo but has now put himself in position to do so. He blistered the front nine for a 29 with six consecutive sub-par holes, including an eagle on No. 7, and ended with three pars on the “Green Mile” finishing holes, a stretch that has often bedeviled him.
“This (was) a great day, start to finish,” said Mickelson, who broke the tournament’s nine-hole record. “I drove the ball well. My iron game was on. My short game was on. I made a lot of putts.”
Mickelson’s confidence, coming a day after he shot a disappointing 75, even surprised his caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay. On the tee box at the 216-yard par-3 13th, Mackay figured he would pull a 5-, or possibly a 6-iron (since the hole was downwind) for Mickelson.
“I’d love a good 7 here,” Mackay recalled Mickelson saying.
“Oh my God,” Mackay replied.
Mickelson hit the 7-iron to within 5 feet from the hole. As they walked off the tee, Mickelson told Mackay he took his comment as a challenge.
“I didn’t mean to say it,” Mackay said. “It just slipped out.”
Mickelson made the birdie putt.
“Over the 22 years I’ve been with Phil, he’s been right 99.9 percent of the time when he’s said he can get there,” said Mackay. “He’s got all those extra gears.”
If Mickelson was the story during the middle part of the day, McIlroy owned the morning. Playing in one of the early groups after making the cut on the number, McIlroy found himself near the top of the leader board by the time he finished, although he slipped back after the afternoon players finished.
His week has gone eerily similar to 2010, when he won the tournament after also barely making the cut on the same number at 1-over and starting Saturday nine shots back. His 65 Saturday was one shot better than his 66 in 2010. He went on to win in ’10 by shooting a tournament-record 62 on Sunday.
“I don’t want to get too used to that in this tournament,” said McIlroy. “I’d rather be up there after two days.”
Flores had a shot at a share of the lead until the 18th tee, when he hit into the creek lining the left side of the fairway. After taking a penalty, he hit his approach shot 18 feet from the pin and made the putt for the only bogey of his day.
Holmes doesn’t have history on his side. No 54-hole leader has won at Quail Hollow since Anthony Kim in 2008. And with the kind of momentum players like Mickelson and McIlroy are carrying, Sunday will be especially challenging.
“I guess it could put some extra pressure on you if you want to,” Holmes said. “But I’ll take being in the last group.”