CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Golf hasn’t had this much noise, this much energy, since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Rory McIlroy is right back in the thick of it at the Wells Fargo Championship.
He is playing in the final group for the first time since Riviera, a month before golf shut down and fans were mostly kept away the rest of 2020.
“It was buzzy, that atmosphere,” McIlroy said after a 3-under 68 left him two shots behind Keith Mitchell. “Just so cool to play in an atmosphere like that again. I’ve missed it. I didn’t think I would miss it as much as I did, but I really have. So to be in contention, to have the fans back, I really enjoyed it out there today and I’m excited about tomorrow.”
Sunday should be quite a show, at least a loud one. The tournament was allowed 30% capacity, whatever that is on a sprawling golf course. Only a small majority of them are wearing masks, making it sound even louder.
Mitchell, who also felt drained of energy after the restart nearly a year ago, straightened out his putter and delivered big tee shots Saturday. He also avoided the mistakes that slowed McIlroy and Woodland, and closed out a bogey-free 66 for a two-shot lead over both of them.
He will be going for his second PGA Tour victory, the first one coming at PGA National in the Honda Classic two years ago.
“Some golf courses on the PGA Tour you can hit bad shots, get away with it and still try to make birdie,” Mitchell said. “You can’t do that here. I think that’s a true test of golf. I don’t think golf would be fun if every course was like this. I just feel more comfortable around a tougher course.”
The putter issue is not a figure of speech.
After closing with an 82 in the Valspar Championship last week, Mitchell discovered his putter was out of alignment. He had it bent back to the right specifications and felt his game was back on an upward trend.
“I just feel like everything’s really working,” said Mitchell, who was at 9-under 204. “My driver feels great, and around this place you’ve really got to drive it well. Really just trying to keep the ball in front of me right now and see what we can do tomorrow.”
McIlroy will be right there along for the ride.
A two-time winner at Quail Hollow, McIlroy raced out to the lead, steadied himself after a double bogey on the 12th hole when his drive hit a cart path and played mistake-free the rest of the way.
McIlroy hasn’t won in 18 months. He was in the penultimate group at Bay Hill last year, the final event before the pandemic.
“I’m excited to be in the position I’m in. I wasn’t really expecting to be in this position coming into this week. I felt like I was still working on my game,” he said. “So I just have to go out and try to play well again tomorrow and see where that leaves me.”
Woodland had troubles on his own, particularly a drive right of the water hazard on the par-5 seventh that turned birdie into bogey, and a lapse of poor putting down the stretch on the back nine. He still managed a 70 with a chance to win for the first time since his U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach in 2019.
With more swirling wind and some pin positions on ridges, Saturday was a day for a little separation. It began with 23 players separated by four shots. Now there are six.
Luke List (68) was three shots behind, while Scott Stallings (70) and Satoshi Kodaira (68) were at 5-under 208.
McIlroy wishes he could have one shot back - the drive on No. 12 that hit hard off the path and well onto a hill. Trying to pitch under trees, he couldn’t get back to the fairway, and was blocked by another tree that forced him to punch one up to the front right of the green. The pin was back left, and he three-putted from 85 feet for double bogey.
McIlroy saved par with an 8-foot putt on the next hole, as meaningful a putt as he made all day.
Woodland recovered from his bogey on the par-5 seventh with a great drive to set up a simple up-and-down for birdie at No. 8, and he was right back in the lead with a birdie on the 10th. But he dropped shots on the 13th and 14th, three-putting the latter. He took three shots to get down from 45 feet off the 15th green and had to settle for par.
A birdie on the 17th got him within range.
Missing from the action is Phil Mickelson, whose 64 in the opening round now feels like more than two days ago. He took double bogey from the trees on No. 9 and came up short in the water on the 136-yard 17th hole for another double bogey and a 76. He is 9 over the last two rounds and tied for 55th.
Still playing is Bryson DeChambeau, but not after an 1,800-mile round trip home to Dallas and back when he thought he missed the cut. He made it back to Quail Hollow with an hour to spare and shot 68, leaving him eight shots behind.
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