The dance has begun again.
For more than a decade now – this is the 13th consecutive year – Phil Mickleson and Quail Hollow Club have gone around and around with each other, giving and taking in the Wells Fargo Championship.
Mickelson has been on the tournament leader board through three name changes, a couple of course alterations, wind, rain, hot, cold, good days, bad days and going half-mad days.
And what has it gotten him?
Everything, it seems, but a Wells Fargo Championship victory.
Mickelson has won $2,993,680 at Quail Hollow, which spends nicely but with his 46th birthday approaching next month and having already been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, he plays for trophies.
Mickelson has finished in the top 10 eight times in 12 previous starts at Quail Hollow, six times finishing in the top five. Only the U.S. Open, where he has 10 top-10s and a record six runner-up finishes, has eluded Mickelson with more frustrating regularity.
This is Charlie Brown’s football, Wile E. Coyote’s Roadrunner, the Chicago Cubs’ World Series.
“I like the golf course too much to not eventually win here,” Mickelson said Thursday after opening with a 3-under-par 69.
When he tacked on a solid 2-under 70 Friday morning, Mickelson found himself among the leaders, just three stokes behind front-runner Andrew Loupe, setting up another wishful weekend.
It has been nearly three years since Mickelson won the British Open Championship at Muirfield, playing perhaps the finest round of his career, shooting a closing 66 to win the major championship most imagined he would never win.
The glow from Muirfield remains eternal, but Mickelson never intended it to be the final chapter. He fought his swing and desire issues for a time, but he is renewed this year, helped by a change in swing coaches to Andrew Gatson late last year.
He’s second on the PGA Tour in scoring average this year (69.713 entering the Wells Fargo), 11th in strokes gained tee to green and 10th in strokes gained putting. He still misses almost as many fairways as he hits, but Mickelson can be brilliant in managing his misses.
At Quail Hollow Friday morning with a chilly breeze blowing, he wasn’t razor sharp, but he eliminated big mistakes. Mickelson bogeyed his last hole (the long par-4 ninth) and failed to birdie a couple of par-5s that he could have, but it was a demanding day.
“I scrapped it around,” Mickelson said.
To this point, Mickelson has won his annual bar fight with Quail Hollow’s three closing holes, playing them 2-under par through two rounds. He birdied the par-4 16th Friday, then scorched a 237-yard hybrid from the light rough to within 15 feet of a back pin to birdie the unforgiving 18th.
“That was a good one,” Mickelson said with a smile when asked about the approach shot on a hole that has destroyed his chances in this event more than once.
Mickelson has finished second, third and tied for fifth in PGA Tour events in 2016, but he’s coming off consecutive missed cuts in the Masters and the Valero Texas Open, where one bad stretch ruined his week. He said he brushed off his two previous starts saying, “Sometimes those things happen.”
There is a comfort level at Quail Hollow not unlike what Mickelson feels at Augusta National, where he has won three times. He has never hidden his feelings about Quail Hollow, pointedly criticizing the design of some greens a few years ago, leading to subtle changes that improved the playability.
He doesn’t know enough about the course changes coming immediately after the Wells Fargo Championship to offer an opinion – “This golf course is already great, it doesn’t really need to do much now,” he said – but he loves what is in front of him this week.
He’s been here before.
“I just haven’t been able to break through and get a victory,” Mickelson said. “But I’ll keep knocking on the door and hopefully keep giving myself chances on the weekend.”
They’re playing his song again at Quail Hollow.