CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Phil Mickelson has gone out of his way this week to speak of his affection for the Wells Fargo Championship and the Quail Hollow Club golf course on which it is played.
Mickelson has defended Quail Hollow, even as it has taken heat for the poor condition of some of its greens, insisting that it be “cut a little bit of slack.” He’s repeatedly said it’s the best-run tournament on the PGA Tour and remains one of his favorite courses “tee to green.”
Now, some positive karma might be coming Mickelson’s way. After shooting a 5-under-par 67 during Friday’s second round, he’s at 9 under for the tournament and the leader by two strokes over Australian rookie Scott Gardiner, Nick Watney and George McNeill.
Five more, including 2010 Wells Fargo champion Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Rod Pampling, Charlotte resident Jason Kokrak and rookie Derek Ernst — are tied for fifth at 6 under.
Wells Fargo is one tournament Mickelson has yet to win. In fact, it’s one of the biggest holes in his resume, especially if you’re not counting his famous missteps at the U.S. Open, where he’s finished second five times.
“This one means a lot to me,” said Mickelson after completing a typically adventuresome round that included six birdies and one bogey. “I’ve come here for many years and I plan on coming back every year.”
Mickelson almost always plays well at Quail Hollow. He has six top-10 finishes, which is more than anybody, and has made the cut 10 times, also the most of any player. Only Jim Furyk, Lucas Glover and Vijay Singh — all former winners — have made more money at Quail Hollow. In 2010, he played all four rounds under par, but finished second behind McIlroy.
So maybe this is his year. After two rounds, he’s certainly in position for it to be.
“I’ve played well here in the past and I’ve had some good chances,” said Mickelson. “Everything feels pretty good.”
On a day that combined sunshine with a few sprinkles and a fair amount of wind, Mickelson was bailed out time and again by his exquisite touch around the greens. A few examples:
• On No. 7, he blasted out of the sand, 9 feet from the hole. He made the birdie putt.
• On No. 14, he was in a greenside bunker, 48 feet from the hole. His shot from the sand settled 5 feet from the hole. He tapped in for birdie and punctuated it all by giving his ball to a boy in the gallery.
• On No. 15, he was 84 feet from the hole and chipped to within 2 feet. Another birdie.
Mickelson has been nearly perfect on the greens through the first two rounds, making all 31 putts from inside 10 feet. He made a 39-footer for birdie on No. 9 Friday, putting him at 8 under and giving him the lead.
But the key to his chances, Mickelson believes, is in his driver, the now-famous “Phrankenwood” that looks more like a 3-wood. Mickelson had been happy with his long game coming to Charlotte, but it deserted him somewhat during Thursday’s opening round, when he shot a 4-under 68 and was one shot off the lead.
“The first 27 or 28 holes, I have not driven the ball very well, which — most people would say — is not surprising,” Mickelson said. “After I played 10 (Friday), I made a slight alignment adjustment and I was able to get back to where I was driving it.”
Mickelson’s playing partner Saturday will be Gardiner, a 27-year-old rookie who lives in Arkansas, was born in New South Wales, Australia, and is the first aboriginal pro golfer in history.
Gardiner began the day two strokes off the lead, but jumped to the lead with consecutive birdies on Nos. 6-9.
After missing eight cuts in a row in his first year on the PGA Tour, he’s happy just to be playing on the weekend — let alone playing with Mickelson in the final group.
“Nobody’s more surprised than I am,” he said after he went into the clubhouse as the day’s early leader.
Watney, part of a seven-way tie for first Friday, survived bogeys on Nos. 3 and 6 and played the back nine in 1 under.
And it’s no wonder McNeill, a former Florida State star, is playing as well as he is. Charlotte is one of his two favorite places to visit (with Park City, Utah), according to his bio on the PGA Tour’s website. McNeill wobbled a bit after he bogeyed the 11th and 12th holes, but finished with birdies on 15 and 17 for a 68. Only Mickelson and Gardiner went lower for the day.