Veteran Phil Mickelson used his short game magic to claw his way within three strokes of halfway leader Andrew Loupe after the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow on Friday.
On a day when defending champion Rory McIlroy roared into contention before a bogey-bogey finish left him trailing by six, Mickelson hit only nine greens in regulation but used his vaunted touch around the greens to card a two-under-par 70.
Mickelson, a five-times major champion who needs only to win the U.S. Open next month to complete the elusive career Grand Slam, got up-and-down to save par eight times, his lone bogey coming at his final hole, where he drove into a fairway bunker.
“I scrapped it around,” said Mickelson, adding that poor driving, rather than suspect iron play, had put him in danger of dropping shots.
“My short game was sharp. I hit a lot of good iron shots, but I had to play for par a little too many times because I didn’t put it in play off the tee,” he said.
“I’ve been driving the ball really well heading into this week, so I’m a little disappointed with the driver.”
Mickelson above all covets a U.S. Open championship and he is using this week as the start of his serious preparation for the June event at Oakmont outside Pittsburgh.
He is a record six-times Open runner-up, with several of those second-placings coming in heartbreaking fashion.
Loupe, who shared the first-round lead with fellow American Steve Wheatcroft, had a chance to build a substantial advantage, only to bogey two of his final three holes for a 71.
“It’s halftime,” said the long-hitting Loupe, who is without a win in 53 starts on the PGA Tour and understands a 36-hole lead counts for little.
He posted an eight-under 136 total to lead compatriot Roberto Castro (66) by one stroke.
Castro vaulted into second place with the help of a rare eagle at the tough par-four 18th, where he holed out with a five-iron from the rough from 220 yards.
McIlroy, meanwhile, picked up four shots on the easier front nine, including a chip-in, 80-foot birdie at the par-five seventh, but his charge stalled with two closing bogeys on the difficult finishing holes.
“It felt a little better for me today, a lot of shots of much better quality than yesterday,” said the Northern Irishman after a 69.
“It’s a step in the right direction. Last year as well, I had a 14-under weekend. I’ll need to do something similar this year.”
American Zac Blair was disqualified in unusual circumstances for using a non-conforming club, in this case his putter.
Blair bent his putter when he banged it against his head in frustration after missing a putt at the fifth hole.
He putted out the hole before subsequently informing an official on the next hole of the situation.
He was disqualified for violating rule 4-3b, which states: “If, during a stipulate round, a player’s club is damaged other than in the normal course of play rendering it non-conforming or changing its playing characteristics, the club subsequently must not be used or replaced during the round.”