CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The cheers Webb Simpson heard Saturday at Quail Hollow were all for him.
Simpson, who lives about a mile away from the golf course, emerged from a crowded leaderboard with a 12-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. He finished with a 3-under 69 for a one-shot lead in the Wells Fargo Championship.
Simpson, who played the opening two rounds with crowd favorite Tiger Woods, was among seven players who had a share of the lead at some point in the third round. One of them was Rory McIlroy, who can return to No. 1 in the world this week. McIlroy was slowed by a three-putt late in his round, but still had a 66 and was among those two shots behind.
Five players were tied until Simpson made his birdie, and finished with a solid par to reach 14-under 202.
Ryan Moore (68) and D.A. Points (69) were one shot behind, though nothing was settled on a steamy afternoon except for Simpson atop the leaderboard and a lot of his neighbors loving it.
Ten players were separated by four shots going into the final round, with McIlroy and another 23-year-old sure to command a lot of the attention. Rickie Fowler, trying to win for the first time on the PGA Tour, played in the group ahead of McIlroy and they matched birdies for much of the round. Fowler had a 67 and was three shots back.
Nick Watney, the 36-hole leader, missed three birdie chances inside 15 feet over the last seven holes, and then took bogey on the 18th when his drive tumbled into the creek. Watney had to settle for a 72 and joined McIlroy at 12-under 204
Stewart Cink, another player in that five-way tie, took four putts from the front of the 18th green for double bogey and shot 71. Even so, he was only three back as he tries to win for the first time since the 2009 British Open at Turnberry.
Geoff Ogilvy finished right after the leaders teed off, and despite a bogey from the creek on the 18th, he shot 65. Ogilvy figured it would at least get him within range, but as the wind picked up and the course became much tougher late in the day, the former U.S. Open champion wound up only four shots behind.
Phil Mickelson ran off four straight birdies late in his round. He and Lee Westwood had 68s and were nine shots back.
Simpson has the crowd on his side, and it wasn't hard to figure out. Watney blasted a beautiful drive on the par-5 15th, followed by a fairway metal into the wind to the fringe for a two-putt birdie and a share of the lead. Walking off the green, he looked back at the crowd clapping wildly for Simpson making birdie to join him atop the leaderboard.
"It's like playing with Phil," Watney said. "Visiting team."
Watney wasn't at all bitter about this. After all, he is stay with Simpson this week. They have a deal that low score takes out the garbage, a chore that falls to Watney.
McIlroy won the Wells Fargo two years ago when he made the cut on the number, then had a 66-62 weekend to win. He was only six back going into the third round, and said his task would be easier. He was joking, but he might have been right.
It already was going to be a good weekend. McIlroy went to dinner Friday night to celebrate his 23rd birthday, and he got quite a surprise when his parents, Gerry and Rose, flew up from Florida to join him. Then, McIlroy birdied his opening three holes and kept right on going.
He was particularly strong at the end of his round, ripping a drive 344 yards into the wind on the 15th that left him a 4-iron to the green. McIlroy didn't care how far his drive went. He was more concerned with the leaderboard, and he liked what he saw.
The question is whether anyone else was paying attention.
"I hope so," McIlroy said. "I'm not so sure. The guys that are at the top of the leaderboard are really accomplished players, and I'm just one of a bunch of guys that can go out and win there tomorrow. But maybe. Maybe if they see my name on the leaderboard, they might start to think about it a little bit more."
Fowler didn't look intimidated. There was a backup on the tee at the par-3 17th. Fowler hit a tight draw to a tough pin, and walking off the tee, looked back at McIlroy and nodded to him with a smile.
The only time Fowler won as pro was in the Korean Open, and it came at McIlroy's expense. More key for Fowler was the third round. It was only the third time in nine tries this year that he broke 70 in the third round, and those were his best finishes of the year.
"All in all, it was what we needed to do — moving day, moving in the right direction, and put myself into a position where we can go out and have a little bit of fun tomorrow," Fowler said.
Even so, the edge might go to McIlroy. He looks primed to go back to No. 1 for the third time this year. His game has looked sharper each day. And of the top 22 players going into the final round, he is the only player to have won this year.