CHARLOTTE — Phil Mickelson has 41 PGA Tour wins, so there aren’t a whole lot of events and courses that have evaded him when he’s exhausted years and significant effort into them.
The Wells Fargo Championship and Quail Hollow Club are right at the top of that list.
Mickelson has played in the event 10 of the 11 years it has existed and has the most top 10s with six.
He finished alone in second in 2010 by four shots despite a final-round 68 because Rory McIlroy closed with a ridiculous 62, tied for third in ’07 and tied for fifth in both ’04 and ’09.
Mickelson enters this weekend with another prime chance to add the Wells Fargo Championship to his collection of titles.
He shot a 5-under-par 67 Friday to take a two-shot lead through two rounds over five-time PGA Tour winner Nick Watney, tour rookie Scott Gardiner of Australia and tour veteran George McNeill.
“I’ve played well here in the past and I’ve had some good chances,” said Mickelson, who has been effusive in his praise for the Quail Hollow layout this week. “This is one that means a lot to me. I’ve come here for many years and I plan on coming back every year. It’s one of my favorite courses we play.”
The other top-ranked players in the field aren’t far behind Mickelson, who is ranked 11th in the world. No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 12 Lee Westwood are among five players tied for fifth and three shots off the pace at 6-under 138.
McIlroy shot a 71 Friday after sharing the lead at 5 under entering the second round, while Westwood and McNeill carded 68s. It was McNeill’s fourth round of 68 or better in his seven Wells Fargo appearances.
Mickelson began his round Friday with birdies on the par-4 first and par-3 second with a pair of 14-foot putts. “So that set a good tone for the round,” said Mickelson, who has made 11 birdies and two bogeys in the opening two rounds.
He birdied the seventh with a 9-foot putt, the ninth with a 35-footer that broke downhill and to the left a few feet, the short par-4 14th with a greenside bunker shot to 4 feet and par-5 15th with a long chip to a foot.
Mickelson has hit just 11 of 28 fairways in regulation and 22 of 36 greens to rank 68th or worse in the field in both categories. “The first 27 or 28 holes I did not drive the ball very well, which most people would say is not surprising,” Mickelson said. “After I played 10 I made a slight alignment adjustment and I was able to get it back to where I had been driving it. Before I came here I was driving the ball phenomenal.”
Mickelson is using the Phrankenwood that Callaway built at his request. It looks like a hybrid between a 3-wood and a driver and has characteristics of both, and Mickelson said he’s been driving the ball as far and straight as he ever has.
“I like to hit shots, carving it certain ways into pins, changing trajectories and so forth,” Mickelson said. “This driver allows me to do that, to hit different shots, and it reacts the same as my irons. The feedback and feel is the same as my irons.”
“… I think if I drive it well this weekend it’s going to be a fun weekend and I fully expect to. Everything else feels pretty good.”
Mickelson leads the field in putting with 50 putts, needing just 25 in each of the first two rounds on greens that are far from perfect with bare spots and some weed infiltration, and he’s made all 31 of his putts of 10 feet or less. The softness of the greens because of moisture is allowing players to be more aggressive with approach shots.
“With them being slower, we’re able to putt them aggressively,” Mickelson said. “We’re able to take some of the break out without fear of racing it way by. And I’ve made a concerted effort to leave uphill putts, which has allowed me to putt even more aggressively and play even less break, and that’s made a big difference.”
McIlroy has shown a similar affinity for Quail Hollow as Mickelson, though he’s already broken through with a win – his first in the states as a 20-year-old – and nearly got another with a playoff loss to Rickie Fowler last year.
McIlroy was the runner-up in the Valero Texas Open four weeks ago, but it’s one of his only two top-10s in six starts this year. McIlroy says he’s rediscovered the swing that propelled him to three wins in his final five starts last season, and leads the field in both fairways hit in regulation with 22 and greens hit with 31. He’s needed 62 putts.
“I was really confident with where my swing was [before the Masters], and it was just a couple of little tweaks we made before this week and they seem to have helped,” McIlroy said. “I hit the ball really well again today and gave myself a lot of opportunities.”
Westwood, who is battling what he calls a chest infection this week, easily recorded his best finish in four Wells Fargo appearance with a tie for fifth last year, when he shot 10 under on the weekend. His 68 Friday included six birdies.
“I gave myself a lot of chances,” said Westwood, who managed a bogey on the par-5 seventh Friday with a 20-foot putt despite hitting two balls in the water. “I normally do, and I made a few, so it’s a good way to play around this golf course.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.