There was some spice to the Wells Fargo Championship’s first-round leader board Thursday. It just takes a while to find it, and it comes in the form of Phil Mickelson.
Journeymen Steve Wheatcroft and Andrew Loupe shared the lead at Quail Hollow Club with a pair of 7-under 65s, with India’s Anirban Lahiri a shot back.
Sift through the next several players – Kevin Chappell at 67, John Senden and three others at 68 and there he is:
Mickelson, whose career resume does not include a Wells Fargo title, lurks four shots behind the leaders, tied for ninth after after a 3-under 69. Included in Mickelson’s round were three birdies on the back nine. He played the “Green Mile” – the final three holes at Quail Hollow that have bedeviled him in the past – even par.
“I really like this tournament, I really like the golf course,” said Mickelson, whose fourth-place tie in 2015 is one of his eight top-10 finishes in 12 tries at Quail Hollow. “I’ve played it well and I feel as though if I can I’ll give myself chances on the weekend and eventually I’ll break through and win here because I’ve been in contention too often. I like the golf course too much to not eventually win here.
“I feel like it’s imminent.”
On a chilly day that saw some rain in the morning and breezier conditions in the afternoon, co-leaders Wheatcroft and Loupe not only played together (along with Charlotte resident Johnson Wagner, who shot a 72), but also fed off each other.
“I thought it was a good pairing for me,” said Loupe, who hasn’t won on the PGA Tour. “We had a blast. Both funny dudes just keeping it light out there. We just kind of pushed each other out there.”
▪ Gastonia’s Harold Varner’s played his round of even-par 72 in front of lots of friends and family. That has not always been a good thing for Varner, who has admitted he sometimes gets distracted. That was the case again Thursday.
“A few of them I saw and obviously spoke to, but it’s hard when there’s a lot of people around them, you talk to one person, they think you talked to them, so it’s just hard,” Varner said. “And especially when I was signing my scorecard, I had to do something afterwards and they’re like, ‘Can I get a picture? I’m like, I’ve just got to handle this real quick.’
“It’s just tough and I’ll deal with it. I just need to play good golf and everything will take care of itself. Sometimes I need to do a better job of focusing and sometimes you can’t be nice to everybody. I just need to get that through my head, and it’s just taking a lot longer than I would like.”
▪ William McGirt’s a North Carolina guy, having grown up in what used to be tobacco country on the road to Myrtle Beach. Home-state loyalties aside, the Fairmont native and former Wofford golfer was about to give up on the Wells Fargo Championship after missing the cut during his first three tournaments in Charlotte.
But after making the cut last year and firing a final-round 67, McGirt decided to play Quail Hollow again this year. After carding a 2-under 70 Thursday, he’s glad he had a change of heart.
“I had pretty much decided last year if I didn’t make the cut – that would have put me 0-for-4 here – I’ll just stay home this week. Because it’s so long,” McGirt said. “But I’ve gotten a little bit longer this week with some swing changes, which has helped. But it’s a really big golf course.”
McGirt, 36, had one of the day’s first tee times at 7:10 a.m. and played with Lahiri, who was the early leader at 6-under.
“I was just trying to stay in there and draft off of him,” said McGirt, whose 33rd-place ranking in the FedEx Cup is a career high.
▪ Rory McIlroy is the world’s third-ranked player and a two-time winner at Quail Hollow. But Thursday morning he was just a guy trying to figure out his swing.
McIlroy was at 4 over through 10 holes before a string of birdies beginning at the fifth gave him a 1-over 73, eight shots behind the leaders.
“I’ve been working a lot on the range and I was still sort of in range mode on the front nine there. I didn’t really have my scoring head on,” McIlroy said. “I said to myself on the front nine, OK, let’s try to play with a little more freedom and maybe not think so much technically, so it seemed to help.”
McIlroy shot a first-round 72 in 2010 when he won in Charlotte the first time, and he carded a 70 on Thursday last year before firing a tournament-record 61 in the third round on his way to the championship.
With temperatures expected to warm through the weekend, McIlroy hopes he can go low Friday and get in contention.
“I need to go out and shoot a good second round, something in the 60s, get myself back in the tournament going into the weekend.”
▪ Charlotte’s Corey Nagy shot a 75 in his first round in a PGA Tour event. Nagey birdied the par-5 seventh, as well as the par-4 14th. He’ll be in one of Friday’s two final groups, going off the first tee at 2:20 p.m. with Tom Hoge and Henrik Norlander.
▪ Martin Piller got the call early Thursday. Rory Sabbatini had withdrawn and Piller, the first alternate, was needed to step in. Piller took advantage of his chance, making it to Sabbatini’s 1 p.m. tee time shooting a 69 that has him tied for ninth and four strokes off the lead.
“I got here real early, about 6:45, and nobody withdrew,” said Piller, whose wife Gerina is on the LPGA Tour. “So I went back to the hotel, hung out, and came back. There were kind of rumors that Rory was going to withdraw. Yeah, that ended up happening.”
They said it
“I’m going to go to the range and maybe limit it to 10 or 15 balls. I don’t enjoy hitting balls, so actually it’s kind of fun.” – Jim Furyk, who is playing his first tournament after having wrist surgery last fall.
“I think this area likes me.” – Lahiri, who shot a 66 and also tied for 16th at a Web.com tournament in 2015 at River Run in Davidson.
“It almost felt like it was going to snow, to be honest.” – Tim Wilkinson of the chilly and damp conditions Thursday morning.
Partly cloudy, high of 70, 20 percent chance of rain.