For a while it looked like being the 24th birthday from hell. Then Phil “The Thrill” Mickelson and Nick Watney committed a series of blunders that threw the Wells Fargo Championship wide open and left Rory McIlroy - despite a horrific day on Quail Hollow’s poor greens - just three shots off the pace.
Seeking his first win of what’s been a difficult first season with Nike, the world number two could easily have gone into today’s final round with a commanding lead, so well did strike the ball from tee to green.
Instead he missed eight putts inside seven feet, and seven inside five feet (including two of less than three feet), and looked certain to trail by at least six strokes as he lurched to a 73.
But some late dramatics changed the script completely and left him just three strokes behind Watney (71) and Mickelson (73) on five under par and just two behind third-place George McNeill (72).
McIlroy was thrown a lifeline when Mickelson, who was cruising at two under for his round, made a double bogey seven at the 15th that made for fascinating viewing.
The left-hander used his 13 degree driver to attempt a daredevil cut, around the right side of a tree from the edge of a cart path but failed to get any shape and went straight on and out bounds.
On the following hole he carved his approach into the crowd, hitting a fan on the head and drawing blood. He dropped another shot and had to get up and down at the last for par to grab a share of the lead with Watney, who had suffered his own late wobble.
A shot ahead of Mickelson on 10 under following the left-hander’s rush of blood to the head at the 15th, Watney was left waiting for 20 minutes to hit his tee shot at the par-three 17th and semi-shanked itso far right that he came up 80 yards short and eventually three-putted for double bogey, carding a 71 to set the target at eight under before being joined by the hapless Mickelson.
“I think they may have given me a little bit of a birthday present right there,” McIlroy said of those late mistakes by Mickelson and Watney.
With the top-25 covered by just five strokes, McIlroy was suddenly feeling a lot better about a putting round he will be keen to forget as quickly as possible.
Just three strokes behind Mickelson starting the day, the Co Down man’s pre-tournament insistence that the poor greens might play into his hands as he relies less on his putting than most players came back to haunt him in earnest.
After missing a two and a half footer for birdie after a magnificent approach to the third, he birdied the fourth from six feet but then took six at the par-five fifth, knocking a 25 footer from the fringe just over five feet past and missing the return
Driving the ball longer than ever, he responded by making a magnificent eagle at the par-five seventh, where his towering approach pitched on the apron and bounced up to five feet.
While he rolled that putt in confidently, his trust left him quickly. He then missed a six foot birdie chance at the eighth and the double bogeyed the ninth with a three-putt that ended with another short miss, this time from two feet seven inches.
A birdie from five feet at the 10th left him four shots behind Mickelson but he then bogeyed the next two holes, missing twice more from five feet.
Most of his misses were to the left and with brain was clearly scrambled by this stage and he would miss two more five footers for birdie at both the 14th and 15th before parring the last three holes, known as the Green Mile, without incident.
According to the PGA Tour and wire reports, Watney was shocked by his shank:
“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.”
Watney faced about a 20-minute wait on the tee at the par-3 17th. When it was his turn to hit, Watney hit a semi-shank toward a hospitality tent that left nearly 80 yards short on the 207-yard hole. His next shot barely reached the green, and he three-putted for a double bogey.
Asked if he was more embarrassed or angry, Watney said, “A bit of both.”
“It’s a tough hole, and I’m sure guys hit shots they thought were good and it just hooked a little and went in the water and made double,” he said. “It just so happened that I’m playing really well and it was on TV, so that’s where the embarrassment comes from. But the other thing is you like to put as much distance as you can between you and the other guys, so a bit of anger and definitely some embarrassment.”
He tugged his cap over his face on the 18th green and shouted, not willing to share exactly what he said.
“If I have any chance of playing well tomorrow, I’m going to need to get past it and come out ready to go or else I’m going to get run over,” Watney said. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Six players are tied for fourth place - John Senden (67), Ryan Moore (68), Robert Karlsson (69) and English pair David Lynn (71) and Lee Westwood (72) - just two off the pace on six under.
McIlroy is ina five-way tie for 10th and while there are some quality players ahead of him, he has the ball-striking ability to give the pacesetters a massive headache on Sunday.