Phil Mickelson still has nine holes to play, but he’s cruising so far, rolling in four birdies on the front nine to take the outright lead at eight-under. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the guys who teed off in the morning wave on Friday at Quail Hollow Club.
Rory McIlroy, who started on the 10th hole, kicked off the round with a bogey when he misjudged the speed of the greens — they are faster than they were yesterday — and ran his first putt ten feet by the hole and missed the comeback.
The world no. 2 finally adjusted and found his comfort zone on the second nine, rolling in three birdies to post a one-under 71, six-under 36-hole total. Rory continues to strike the ball beautifully, finding 11 of 14 fairways and hitting 16 of 18 greens in regulation in the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship.
“I hit the ball really well again today and gave myself a lot of opportunities,” said McIlroy, who won his first PGA Tour event here in 2010. “I clearly misjudged the speed and the tempo of the green, and the greens were a lot faster today than they happened to be yesterday afternoon. It took a little bit of time to get adjusted.
“But I think this week it’s all about fairways and greens. If you can do that, not every putt’s going to drop, but I think if you’ve given yourself the chances, you take a few of them and you’ll be right there.”
He’s got that right. It’s setup for Rory and other guys who are premium ballstrikers. Remember, Rory *loves* courses that set up soft and long, like Congressional for the 2011 U.S. Open — it feels a bit like that this week, especially with Garrigus, who finished runner-up to Rory that year, also playing well.
The key for Rory this week has been finding fairways. He’s worked out the driver, which he was missing to the right earlier in the season.
“My driving has been good,” he said. “I felt like the first few events of the year I had a big miss to the right and I think I’ve eliminated that which is a good thing. And yeah, the more you can put your ball in the fairway, not just here, but on any golf course, you’re going to do well.”
Although he was two-over on his first nine, his score wasn’t an accurate reflection of how he played. Difference between yesterday and today, along with the back and the front nines, was he holed more putts in the first round.
“You’re not going to hole every putt on these greens,” said McIlroy, referring to the poor state of the greens at Quail Hollow this week (aka the most-talked-about story). “So as long as I keep giving myself chances that is the most important thing.”
At risk of being wrong and/or jinxing him, I think he’ll be atop the leaderboard at the end of play on Sunday. Well, unless he celebrates a little too hard the next two nights. Rory turns 24 (so old!) on Saturday. He has two friends in town with him this week, so I’m sure they’ll have some fun.
Another player who gets the most out from his game in ballstriking: Lee Westwood. On Wednesday when I tweeted that Rory said he isn’t a guy who relies on his putting to score, so the crappy greens actually eliminates a bunch of guys in the field, there were quite a few jokes in reply about picking Westy. Well, if you did, then hopefully you put some money down on him (if it were legal!) or you picked him for Fantasy Golf (which I’m kicking myself for not doing — I mean, duh).
Westwood fired a four-under 68 to tie Rory at six-under at the halfway point.
“I’ve always played well here,” said Westwood. “I played nicely last year and finished fifth. I guess you get rewarded for hitting it straight and penalized for missing it off line. Normally the greens are very firm. You have to think your way around and position the ball. This week you can be a little more aggressive because it is softer.”
Meanwhile, besides Mickelson, Westwood and McIlroy, here’s a name you’re probably not familiar with that’s near the top of the leaderboard — but he’s a guy you’re going to want to cheer for — Scott Gardiner, one of the funniest (in a dry, sneaky way) and quirkiest guys on Tour (not to mention very popular among his peers).
Gardiner, an Australian who lives in Arkansas after meeting his wife at a concert during a tournament, beats to his own drum, so to speak. (Aside: I remember at the Sony Open this year, everyone told me I needed to talk to him when I was looking for rookies to interview.)
Heading into Quail Hollow, Scott had missed eight straight cuts, despite playing well in his PGA Tour debut at Waialae Country Club in January.
“I was in the second to last group and finished 15th (at the Sony Open),” said Gardiner, the 36-year-old rookie and first indigenous Australian to earn his full Tour card. “I got a false impression. These guys are good. I’m not going to lie.”
Gardiner spent eight years on the Web.com Tour before last season when he broke through to finish in the top 25 on the money list and graduate to the big leagues.
With the way things had gone in the first half of the season, he headed into the week expecting to feel “agony.” He opened his post-round presser saying, “Probably nobody’s more surprised than I am.”
Why? “Have you seen my resume this year?” he said, laughing.
Oh, if you haven’t noticed, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.
“I just haven’t been putting it together,” said Gardiner, who was promoted to the big leagues after finishing 22nd on the Web.com Tour money list last season. “I’ve putted poorly all year, haven’t really saved any shots around the greens.
“My hitting and everything I don’t know. It seems like it’s been getting better for a while, but the results have been similar. But it’s just nice to get a few birdies and save a few pars because when I’ve been giving myself opportunities, I haven’t been taking them. My short game has been poor, so it’s nice to see some improvement in those areas.”
At the Shell Houston Open he met short-game guru Dave Stockton Sr., who he ran into in the locker room on Monday. When Stockton asked how his game was, Scott replied, “No good.”
Stockton offered to take a look. Turns out it may have helped him break out of his missed-cut streak.
“I called him Monday night and said, yeah, I need some more time, and it’s turned out well so far,” said Gardiner. “It’s given me some structure, which I didn’t have.
“When you’re lacking in confidence, structure is something that helps you, because you sort of think about the process as opposed to all the bad shots you’ve hit.”
Stockton didn’t provide any groundbreaking advice, but just some basic reminders and little tips can go a long way in this game. Gardiner said he was getting a bit wristy around the greens and Stockton got him back to leading with his left hand through the shot. Stockton also told Gardiner that he only reads the putt from the low side instead of going all the way around the hole to examine the line.
Of course, you can count on Gardiner to play down his abilities — or on the other end, he knows his game and gets the most out of his strengths.
“I know how good Adam Scott is,” said Gardiner, who has been paired with Scott several times in Australia and Europe. “The things that he does don’t apply to me.”
With names like Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood on the leaderboard, Gardiner is likely going to play with one of them — an opportunity that he’ll relish (actually, he’s just excited to be playing the weekend!).
“It’s going to be a thrill,” said Gardiner. “I’m sure I’ll play with some great players in the next couple days. I don’t know. I’m doing what I love doing, and to do it with some of the best players in the world, generally you have a great atmosphere when that happens. It gets your adrenaline going.
“For me, playing in the last few groups, it’s kind of like when you watch football in the finals, the adrenaline is pumping and you do things that you’re not normally capable of doing. For me, most of the time, that’s been positive. I would like to do it more.”
(AP Photo/Chuck Burton & Neil Redmond)