Many big names skipped the Wells Fargo Championship. But the big names that did show played well.
Phil Mickelson shot a 67 Thursday and is one stroke out of the lead. Rory McIlroy shot a 69.
Angel Cabrera, who has won a Masters and a U.S. Open, leads with a 66. I watched Cabrera play the Wells Fargo Pro-Am last year with Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates.
Sabates is a native of Cuba and Cabrera grew up and lives in Argentina. They talked as they walked, speaking and joking in Spanish. Cabrera was outstanding with spectators, giving away golf balls, signing autographs and, as always, playing fast.
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In his post-match interview Thursday, Cabrera answered questions through an interpreter. Any joy he derived from his 6-under round was lost in translation. But he’s charismatic even when he says little, and he looks good atop the leader board.
In golf, everybody pulls for everybody. But it’s especially easy to pull for Mickelson because we feel as if we know him. We know he’s been struggling this year. It’s as if fans are on the course with their buddy, and their assignment is to pull him through.
So when Mickelson, 43, hits an errant shot, fans act as if they’re hurt. And he bogeyed 13 and 17. Fans implored him, tried to lift him and even scolded him. “Phil, what are you doing?” a fan yelled on 13. Even if Tiger Woods was playing, Mickelson would lead the tournament in angst.
And when Mickelson goes well, a celebration ensues. He had six birdies. There were many celebrations.
This is Mickelson’s 11th tournament at Quail Hollow. His average finish is 11.7. He has finished in the top 10 seven times. He tied for third in 2007, finished second in 2010 and last year he finished third.
Last year’s tournament was strange. It was monsoon season in Charlotte. Also, there was a scarcity of grass. A golfer would hit within a few feet of the pin and think: “I made the brown.”
Also, the winner of last year’s tournament was Derek Ernst. Ernst was the fourth alternate. But the brown greens and the wet weather drove off enough golfers to create an opening for him. A rookie, he hung in and he lurked and, when Mickelson faltered, beat David Lynn in a playoff. It was Ernst’s only top-10 finish of the year.
I watched Ernst at the Masters last month, and thought: This is the first player I’ve watched at Augusta I think I can beat.
And I don’t play.
Ernst, 23, missed four straight cuts this year before finishing 34th last week at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. The defending champ hung in at Quail Hollow Thursday, shooting a 73.
I hope Ernst, or an Ernst-like player, emerges. Most of us like underdogs. But we also need a favorite for the underdogs to contend with.
The pairing of 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson at the Masters was compelling early Sunday until Bubba made the tournament his.
Both played the Wells Fargo in 2013, but neither entered this year.
Mickelson is where he wants to be.
“I really enjoy the golf course,” he says. “I’ve always loved it, tee to green. I just think it’s one of the best I’ve seen, and it requires such great shot-making in all different directions off the tee, as well as onto the greens. The greens now are just stupendous.”
Webb Simpson, a Raleigh native who lives in Charlotte and won a U.S. Open, shot a 68. Fans love him, and should. He’s a Quail Hollow member. He has played the tournament five times and has only one top-five finish.
“I see a lot of familiar faces, and it’s fun to try to play well,” Simpson says. “And, you know, it was nice to have people clapping for me when I go up to the green because I’m not used to it. Normally they’re doing it for Ernie (Els) and Phil and Tiger.”
Late Sunday afternoon, who isn’t here won’t matter. A tournament is like a party – the people that show are the people that count. They’ll create their own drama. And no matter who they are, they’ll be cheered as they walk to the green.