It took about 45 holes, but Dustin Johnson finally looked like the world’s top-ranked golfer again on his final nine holes Saturday afternoon at Eagle Point Golf Club.
The Coastal Carolina alumnus and shot a bogey-free 5-under 67 in the third round of the 15th Wells Fargo Championship to climb into a tie for 14th at 4-under 212 and pull within four shots of leader Patrick Reed. Four of Johnson’s five birdies came on his second nine.
With his late rally, Johnson still has hope of becoming the first player since Tiger Woods in 2007-08 to win four consecutive starts on the PGA Tour.
“If it’s windy again tomorrow, hopefully I get off to a good start and post a real good number and let them play for it,” Johnson said. “Starting today I thought it was going to take 11 or 12 under, and I’m 4 under so I need to shoot 7 under tomorrow probably to have a chance.”
Johnson made a 22-foot birdie putt on his first hole of the third round, the par-3 10th, then made four birdies on his second nine with putts of 4, 3, 3 and 9 feet, the final birdie coming on the tough par-4 ninth hole. He’s having difficulty reading Eagle Point’s greens in his first look at the course.
“I just need to putt better,” Johnson said. “Even this afternoon I didn’t putt good. I shot 5 under and hit it good and chipped it well but didn’t make any putts hardly. I made a nice one to start the day and nice one to finish, but I’ve missed a lot of 10-footers for birdie out there.
“… The greens are kind of tricky, they’re real subtle. I just haven’t played and my feel is a little bit off. I just need some more rounds. I feel like it’s getting better. It’s getting there.”
Johnson hit 9 of 14 fairways in the third round after hitting just six fairways in the second. He put a new TaylorMade driver into play in the third round, replacing a driver that won three consecutive tournaments.
“[The ball] was in play, that’s all I care about,” Johnson said. “I hit one good drive all day. . . . The problem is I’m not swinging good enough to judge. I’ve got to start hitting it solid first then I’ll be able to figure out which one I want to use.”
Johnson’s second round was suspended due to darkness Friday, and he made two bogeys and a birdie on the five holes he played to complete his second round Saturday morning to make the cut on the number at 1-over 145.
In the second round, Johnson birdied the 15th hole, bogeyed holes 16 and 17 and made a par on the 18th to be among the 79 players who made the cut to Saturday’s third round. “I wasn’t worried about the cut,” Johnson said.
His second-round 3-over-par 75 is Johnson’s highest round since last September’s Deutsche Bank Championship.
Johnson practiced in the two hours he had between the second and third rounds, paying particular attention to the short game and putting.
“I’m just rusty. I really hadn’t had any practice coming into here. I mean none,” Johnson said. “… That’s the biggest thing. I had a little bit better feel out there today. It’s just going to take a little bit of time to get back into it. But I felt like I played pretty well this afternoon.”
Johnson is playing his first tournament since winning the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship on March 26 and spent the past four weeks recovering from a back injury incurred when he slipped and landed on a small staircase on the eve of the Masters Tournament.
Johnson tees off with Morgan Hoffmann at 12:25 in the final round, 1:20 before the final group of Reed and Alex Noren.
Lefty makes charge
Phil Mickelson played Saturday like the tournament hasn’t changed venues this year.
Though he has yet to win at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, Mickelson has nine top-10s and seven top-fives including a runner-up finish in 2010 in the Wells Fargo, and he made a move Saturday at Eagle Point.
Shaking off a disappointing double bogey on his final hole in the second round, Mickelson shot a 3-under 69 Saturday to move into a tie for 14th at 4-under 212. He made four birdies – holing a pair of 15-foot birdie putts and a 7-footer, and chipping in from 35 feet on the fifth hole – while making a bogey on the ninth hole.
“I had a lot of opportunities to take it even lower and really move up the leaderboard, but it was a good solid day,” Mickelson said. “At least I put myself in position where if I get hot tomorrow and get it going I can make up the ground. I was thinking I needed to shoot 5, 6, 7 under today to get right where I wanted.”
Mickelson believes a low number is possible at Eagle Point, but it won’t be easy.
“Surprisingly, you can be a little more aggressive than you think, but you have to use the slopes and contours on the green to stop the ball close rather than just flying it right at it because still, even though they’re softer than the first couple of days, they’re still tough to hold anything past a wedge,” Mickelson said. “But I think it’s a lot easier today than it has been the first two days.”
A cut above
Because more than 78 players made the 36-hole cut, another cut to the low 70 scores and ties was made after 54 holes Saturday afternoon.
Players who didn’t qualify for Sunday’s final round were Fabian Gomez, Greg Owen, Jason Bohn, Martin Flores and Steven Alker, who each shot a 5-over 77.