CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The bunker shot showed the magic of Phil Mickelson. He blasted out of the sand with so much side spin that the ball landed about 5 feet to the right of the flag on the 14th green at Quail Hollow and wound up 5 feet on the other side.
He still had to make the putt, and nothing comes easily this week at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Except, it seems, for Mickelson.
Mickelson knocked it in, keeping alive an amazing streak of not missing any of his 31 putts inside 10 feet through two rounds. He wound up with a 5-under 67 and a two-shot lead over Nick Watney, George McNeill and Scott Gardiner going into the weekend.
Mickelson has been more optimistic than usual about being at Quail Hollow, even though so many indicators would suggest a dour outlook. The greens, typically as pure and pristine as everything else about this course, are an eyesore. There are brown splotches, and some brown strips, grass in some spots, barren in others. Players say they don't all roll at the same speed, and it can get frustrating.
But it was Mickelson who came to the tournament's defense after the first round, saying the greens were fine and that the tournament has been run so well the last 10 years that no one would complain about an off year when everything went wrong with the greens.
And no one was looking more forward to the weekend than Mickelson, who was at 9-under 135.
"I think that the greens are putting very, very good, obviously, because I've putted them well," Mickelson said. "But with them being slower, we're able to putt them aggressively. We're able to take some of the break out without fear of racing it way by. And I've made a concerted effort to leave uphill putts, which has allowed me to putt even more aggressive and play even less break. And that's made a big difference in my putting."
For a tournament that already has had six major champions win in its 10-year history, Mickelson is missing from the list. And it's a title he dearly wants.
He also has plenty of work ahead of him.
Watney played with Mickelson the opening two rounds and looks efficient, going bogey-free on the back nine. He had a 70 and was at 7-under 137, along with McNeill (68) and Scott Gardiner, the 37-year-old tour rookie who had missed eight straight cuts coming into the Quail Hollow. Gardiner, the first Aboriginal Australian to become a pro golfer, ran off four straight birdies at the turn and had a 67.
Rory McIlroy struggled with the speed of the greens — he felt they were much faster than Thursday — but rallied on the front nine with three birdies for a 71. Lee Westwood twice hit into the water on the par-5 seventh and still escaped with a bogey by making a 25-foot putt. He had a 68. They were in a group at 6-under 138 that included Rod Pampling, the ninth alternate and last man in the field.
Sergio Garcia twice made news for his work on the greens.
Garcia used his wedge to knocked in a 5-footer on the third hole, only this wasn't any protest about the overall conditions of Quail Hollow. He had a scrape mark left by cleats, which he described as 3 inches long and nearly an inch high.
"I thought the only way I could make this putt was to get lucky," Garcia, and he wasn't feeling lucky on this day. The prudent move was to hit a 52-degree wedge, chip it just over the rough turf, and he pulled it off beautifully. It was a throwback to the days of the stymie, when players didn't mark their golf balls, or to a generation ago in summer events when spike marks could be an inch high.
Garcia didn't sign for his 68 — he was five shots behind — until talking to rules officials and going over the videotape. A TV viewer said it appeared Garcia did not replace his ball in the same spot where he marked it on the 17th. Garcia, demonstrating later for reporters, said he slid the coin to the side of the ball, and turned his hand around when he replaced the ball so he wouldn't brush the coin. He said it appeared his ball was a fraction of an inch away from the original spot. PGA Tour rules officials signed off on it, and Garcia said they even called the USGA to confirm.
"I said, 'If you guys feel like I gained something by moving it — I don't know how much, like a centimeter or couple centimeters, whatever it is — I'm fine with the two-stroke penalty. I'd rather take the two- stroke penalty than come out here like I was a cheater,'" Garcia said. "Obviously, they felt that wasn't the case. I told them exactly what I did, and they felt it was fine."
Garcia also said he tweaked his back on a tee shot at the 10th and would get treatment on it, uncertain he would play depending on how it felt Saturday.
Through it all, there was plenty of aggravation. Bubba Watson opened with a three-putt from 10 feet, added a four-putt from about 65 feet on the 12th hole, and had another three-putt from 15 feet.
But it was like that for everyone, which is why McNeill had a peculiar answer when asked what the winner had to do well this weekend.
"It's the guy who keeps control of his emotions the best," McNeill said. "The greens will have an effect on you. You've just got to keep positive. You're going to have good putts that miss, and you might have some bad putts that go in."
Mickelson is less concerned with his run of amazing putting than with getting the ball in play. He has hit only 11 fairways going into the weekend, though he found something in his alignment early on the back nine and was hitting it where he was aiming the rest of the way.
"It's fun to be in contention. It's fun to be in the mix," Mickelson said. 'It's great to be leading, but we're only halfway home. There is a lot of golf left. I have to come out and play very well. But I've been putting very well this week, and I've been driving the ball very well before I got here. And I think if I drive the ball the way I've been before I got here, and not the way I did the first few days, I think it's going to be a fun weekend."