Phil Mickelson entered the 14th Wells Fargo Championship coming off a pair of missed cuts that included rounds of 79 and 77.
So he was clearly out of form. But he never seems to be off form at Quail Hollow Club, and that continued Thursday with a 3-under-par 69 that has him in a tie for ninth after the opening round.
“I thought it was a good start to the week,” said Mickelson, who is four shots behind co-leaders Steve Wheatcroft and Andrew Loupe.
Mickelson has played in the past 12 Wells Fargo tournaments and only twice has he finished outside the top 12, tying for 26th and 35th. Six of those finishes are top-fives, including a tie for fourth coming off a missed cut last year. It was one of just three top-15 finishes for Mickelson last season.
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“It keeps me coming back because I feel like it's imminent,” Mickelson said. “I feel like I’ve played well here so many times that I'll continue to give myself chances on the weekend. I really like the golf course. … I like the golf course too much to not eventually win here.”
Mickelson was even at the turn following a pair of both birdies and bogeys on the front nine, then took advantage of the par-5 10th and 15th holes and the short par-4 14th with birdies to shoot a 33 on the back.
“You have to strategically play and manage your way around the golf course,” Mickelson said. “You can hit it in the rough, you can miss greens if you’re in the correct spot, if you’re underneath the hole then it’s very playable, and there are enough birdie holes where you can shoot a good score.”
Mickelson had a solid start to the year with top-20 finishes in six of his first eight tournaments, including a tie for third in the Career Builder Challenge at PGA West and runner-up in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
But he missed the cut at the Masters with a second-round 79 and opened the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago with a 77.
“I know that I can hit a lot better than I did today,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been striking it a lot better this past week in my practice sessions and rounds than I feel I did today. But I managed my way around this golf course.”
On his opening nine holes Thursday at Quail Hollow Club, Rory McIlroy looked like a golfer who hadn’t played a competitive round in more than three weeks.
McIlroy began his round on the 10th hole and was 4-over par at the turn and still 4 over through 13 holes. But he carded three consecutive birdies over his final five holes to shoot a 73, which has him tied for 77th after the first round of the 14th Wells Fargo Championship.
“I wasn’t very happy with how I played today but I’m happy with my comeback, and at least I showed a little bit of character out there and didn’t let it get away from me,” said the defending champion, “giving myself an opportunity to go out there tomorrow and shoot a good number and try to get myself back into contention.”
McIlroy bogeyed holes 12 and 13 and double-bogeyed the 18th, made a birdie on 2 and bogey on 3, then birdied three consecutive holes with a two-putt from 45 feet on the par-5 fifth, 230-yard tee shot to 5 feet on the sixth and two-putt from 60 feet on the par-5 seventh.
“It sort of was a tale of two nines,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been working a lot on the range and I was sort of still in range mode on the front nine there. I didn’t really have my scoring head on. I was thinking about my golf swing and just trying to make good swings at it and I sort of got caught up in that a little bit.
“So I said to myself on the front nine, okay, let's try to play with a little more freedom and maybe not think so much technically, so it seemed to help.”
McIlroy said he was missing shots to the left and planned to hit some balls on the range Thursday afternoon to work out the issue in his swing.
Though he’s eight shots off the lead, the world’s No. 3 golfer has shown he can go low at Quail Hollow shooting a 62 in 2010 and tournament-record 61 last year.
Not game for Games
The inclusion of golf in the Summer Olympic Games for the first time since 1904 would seem like a coveted opportunity for the world’s top players, but several players have opted to pass on the chance to win an Olympic medal.
Major champions Adam Scott of Australia, South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, and Fiji’s Vijay Singh have said they won’t compete in Rio, mostly due to scheduling commitments. Australian Marc Leishman has also withdrawn his name for consideration citing a concern for the health of his family.
Australia looked to be a favorite for the gold medal with the formidable world top-10 team of No. 1 Jason Day and No. 7 Scott. Leishman is ranked 35th in the world. But his wife nearly died last year from toxic shock syndrome and her immune system is still weakened, and the Zika virus is present in Brazil.
Day will compete and Marcus Fraser and Matt Jones, ranked 63rd and 71st, respectively, are the other potential members of the Australian team.
“I just wouldn’t get to see my family enough,” Scott said. “I think I’m seeing them six days in seven weeks and it would have been six in nine weeks had I gone to the Olympics. Those are just the hard decisions you have to make. That’s the way it is, unfortunately, and that’s the event I decided to skip.”
The PGA Tour and European Tour schedules were altered to accommodate the Olympics, leading to three majors and a World Golf Championship in a seven-week span before the Olympic tournament is played from Aug. 11-14, and the four-event FedExCup Playoffs will begin two weeks after the Olympics.
Scott annually participates in the Australian Masters and Australian Open tournaments to lend his support to the Australasian Tour and events in his home country.
“The tough part was to choose not to represent Australia, I guess. That’s the tough part,” Scott said. “But I feel like I do that every week I play over here or anywhere else outside of Australia. I’ve lived my life representing Australia and I feel I’ve tried to do the best job I can of that. … I’ll be back in Australia to play at the end of the year. I think I’m far from abandoning my country.”
Golf is on a two-term trial basis with inclusion in the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo games, so the opportunity could be fleeting.
One spectator at Quail Hollow Club apparently believed Thursday that the tournament involves audience participation.
After Rory McIlroy teed off on the par-3 sixth hole, a ball came bouncing onto the tee box from the surrounding gallery as Rickie Fowler was preparing to tee off.
“I was getting ready to go up on the tee and a ball flew over from the left side,” Fowler explained. “I didn’t really know what it was. It looked like a golf ball, something was attached to it. I later find out it was an earplug. So, random. The guy tried to say it was a gift. I don’t know why you would give a gift of a golf ball with an earplug attached to it.”
McIlroy said the issue was handled. “Charlotte’s finest sorted it out and got him off the property, thankfully,” he said.