Keith Mitchell straightened out his putter and delivered big tee shots Saturday that carried him to a 6-under-par 66 and a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and Gary Woodland in the Wells Fargo Championship.
The putter issue is not a figure of speech.
After closing with an 82 in the Valspar Championship last week, Mitchell discovered his putter was out of alignment. He had it bent back to the right specifications, avoided mistakes that slowed so many others, and now has a chance at a second PGA Tour victory.
“I just feel like everything’s really working,” said Mitchell, who was at 9-under 204. “My driver feels great, and around this place you’ve really got to drive it well. Really just trying to keep the ball in front of me right now and see what we can do tomorrow.”
McIlroy will be right there along for the ride.
A two-time winner at Quail Hollow, McIlroy raced out to the lead, steadied himself after a double bogey on the 12th hole when his drive hit a cart path, and shot 68. Winless the last 18 months, McIlroy will be in the final group for the first time since Riviera more than a year ago.
Woodland had troubles on his own, particularly a drive right of the water hazard on the par-5 seventh that turned birdie into bogey, and a lapse of poor putting down the stretch on the back nine. He still managed a 70 with a chance to win for the first time since his US Open title at Pebble Beach in 2019.
With more swirling wind and some pin positions on ridges, Saturday was a day for a little separation. It began with 23 players separated by four shots. Now there are six.
Luke List (68) was three shots behind, while Scott Stallings (70) and Satoshi Kodaira (68) were at 5-under 208.
It also was about avoiding mistakes, and Mitchell did that as well as anyone. He picked up a birdie on No. 9, the second-toughest hole of the day, and took care of most of the scoring chances. Mostly, though, he avoided the blunders that slowed McIlroy and Woodland, and eliminated so many others.
“Some golf courses on the PGA Tour you can hit bad shots, get away with it and still try to make birdie,” Mitchell said. “You can’t do that here. I think that’s a true test of golf. I don’t think golf would be fun if every course was like this. I just feel more comfortable around a tougher course.”
McIlroy was dialed in with the speed of his putts, critical on a day with a hard wind. But on No. 12, his drive to the left hit hard off the path and well onto a hill. Trying to pitch under trees, he couldn’t get back to the fairway, and was blocked by another tree that forced him to punch one up to the front right of the green. The pin was back left, and he three-putted from 85 feet for double bogey.
McIlroy saved par with an 8-foot putt on the next hole, as meaningful a putt as he made all day.
Woodland recovered from his bogey on the par-5 seventh with a great drive to set up a simple up-and-down for birdie at No. 8, and he was right back in the lead with a birdie on the 10th. But he dropped shots on the 13th and 14th, three-putting the latter. He took three shots to get down from 45 feet off the 15th green and had to settle for par.
A birdie on the 17th got him within range.
Missing from the action is Phil Mickelson, whose 64 in the opening round now feels like more than two days ago. He took double bogey from the trees on No. 9 and came up short in the water on the 136-yard 17th hole for another double bogey and a 76. He is 9 over the last two rounds and tied for 55th.
Still playing is Bryson DeChambeau, but not until after an 1,800-mile round trip home to Dallas and back when he thought he missed the cut. He made it back to Quail Hollow with an hour to spare and shot 68, with a double bogey on the last hole, and was eight shots behind.
The trick was avoiding mistakes.
LPGA — Patty Tavatanakit struggled on the front nine but will take a one-shot lead over fellow Thai Atthaya Thitikul and German Caroline Masson into the final round of the LPGA Thailand tournament in Pattaya.
Tavatanakit recovered from her slow start to shoot a 2-under 70 in the third round at Siam Country Club.
After back-to-back 64s, Tavatanakit bogeyed the fourth and ninth after a birdie on the second. She recovered with birdies on the 14th and 15th and fought back from the bunker on the final hole for her fourth birdie. She moved to 18-under 198.
“I’m not expecting to have a perfect tournament.” Tavatanakit said. “Even though I had some nice rounds, it was still not perfect, which I feel like it’s the nature of the game itself. I’m really proud of myself of how I hung in there and grinded back to shooting under par.”
Tavatanakit and 18-year-old Thitikul are playing under high home expectations despite no crowds due to the pandemic. The 21-year-old Tavatanakit became Thailand’s new leading female golfer following her breakthrough win at the ANA Inspiration major last month.
The 21-year-old Tavatanakit will keep her eyes fixed on winning her second LPGA title. A Thai player has never won this event.
“I don’t have to be perfect to win tomorrow, but still it’s going to be tough,” said Tavatanakit, whose full first name is Paphangkorn. “I got to be mentally prepared for whatever is coming tomorrow. Like ANA, it’s not going to be easy. There will be some challenges. Going to be people shooting low numbers.
“I just can’t let that affect me at all,” she continued. “All I got to do is play my best, and whatever outcome it is, I’ll still be super proud of myself for having really good three rounds already.”
Playing her first international event as a pro, Thitikul (68) also shook off a sluggish start with two bogeys in three holes to shoot six birdies, four after the turn.
“I didn’t get off to a great start, so I just told myself to hang in there,” said Thitikul, who won two Ladies European Tour titles in Pattaya, at another course, in 2017 and 2019 when she was still an amateur.
With the growing local expectations for a Thai champion, Thitikul will try to keep that out of her mind and focus on her routine.
“I will go to the final round focusing on how well I can apply what I have been training for on the greens. Whatever people expect from me, I won’t let that bother me,” the teenager said.
Masson (67) carded seven birdies against two bogeys to join Thitikul in second place. Masson will be aiming to win her second LPGA title after the 2016 Manulife LPGA Classic in Ontario.
“For me to have a chance to win, I have to keep making putts and birdies and try to go as low as I can,” she said.
The former top-ranked Lydia Ko (67) of New Zealand and Gaby Lopez (67) of Mexico were both two shots off the lead after three rounds.
European — Garrick Higgo made four birdies in his last four holes to shoot a 7-under 64 that gave him a two-shot lead entering the final round of the Canary Islands Championship.
Higgo also made two eagles to move to 20 under at the European Tour event in Tenerife.
“I was just trying to stay patient because I’m hitting good putts and I’m hitting the ball a lot better than I have the last couple of weeks,” Higgo said. “I’ve been giving myself a lot more chances so it’s hard to stay patient when you’ve got a lot of putts.”
Richard Mansell, who also carded a 64, was second.
Calum Hill was another shot back in third place.
Halfway leader Adri Arnaus dropped seven shots back in the third round thanks in part to a quadruple bogey on the par-5 third hole.
Walker Cup — Cole Hammer and Davis Thompson won a foursomes match so wild that only three holes were halved, giving the Americans a tight win in an opening session that ended in a 2-2 tie with Great Britain & Ireland.
All four matches went to the 18th hole at Seminole Golf Club in Juno, Fla.
Two of the matches included alternates, one on each team, because of a stomach virus that derailed players and captains from both sides in the days leading up to the start.