Phil Mickelson and Nick Watney wound up tied for the lead Saturday in the Wells Fargo Championship, minus the separation from the rest of the field.
Mickelson hit a shot out-of-bounds on the 15th hole and hit another shot that struck a spectator in the head, costing him three shots over the last four holes at Quail Hollow in his round of 1-over 73.
Watney hit a semi-shank with a 6-iron on the par-3 17th, took double bogey and had to settle for a 71.
It felt like a small consolation that they were tied at 8-under 208, one shot ahead of George McNeill, who had his share of trouble down the stretch for a 72.
“I can’t remember the last time I did that in a tournament, so it was a bit unsettling” Watney said about his shank. “The big picture? I’m tied for the lead, and I would have taken that on Thursday morning.”
Instead of pulling away from the pack, their mistakes in a wild final hour allowed a dozen players to get within three shots of the lead.
One of them is Warren’s Jason Kokrak, who shot a 1-over 73 but is three strokes back of the co-leaders.
Another was Rory McIlroy, who shot 73 and missed seven putts from the 5-foot range or closer, which was no way to celebrate his 24th birthday.
McIlroy ranked 82nd out of the 83 players who made the 36-hole cut in the key putting statistic, yet he still goes into the final round with a good chance for his first win of the year.
But it’s a crowded race.
John Senden completed his round of 67 some three hours before the leaders finished. Ryan Moore was right behind him with a 68. They were among six players who were tied for fourth, two shots behind.
That group included Lee Westwood, who made two birdies and two bogeys in his otherwise boring round of 72.
“It’s tough to run away on this golf course,” Westwood said. “I think the greens are dictating that with a pretty good bunch.
“Nobody’s going to get streaky and shoot a 62, I don’t think. It will be a case of playing solid tomorrow and giving yourself chances and taking opportunities when you can.”
The starting time for today has been moved up because of rain in the forecast, with the final round starting at 6:45 a.m.
Given the forecast, Mickelson treated Saturday like the final round in case today — and perhaps even Monday — is a wash and the tournament is reduced to 54 holes. He made a 7-foot par putt on the 18th to tie Watney.
“It was some poor play coming down the stretch,” Mickelson said.
McIlroy didn’t need to be reminded that it was his birthday. Fans serenaded or shouted to him on just about every hole. If all he wanted was to make some putts, Boy Wonder didn’t get his wish. At times, it became a cruel joke.
He stuffed his shot into just inside 3 feet on the third hole and missed the birdie.