CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The guy’s had a front-row seat for one of the edgiest shows in golf for more than 20 years.
Caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay has seen all of Phil Mickelson’s high-wire acts.
He’s been there for all the spectacular shots that led to victories, and all the spectacular misses that led to defeat. No caddie’s heart has leaped into his throat more than Mackay’s over the years.
So when Mackay says Mickelson made him gape in wonder, it gets people’s attention.
That’s what happened at the 13th tee Saturday at the Wells Fargo Championship, with Mickelson’s shot-making glowing red-hot around Quail Hollow Golf Club.
That’s where Mackay gave Mickelson the yardage, the 216 yards his player needed to cover to get to a back pin at the long par 3. Mackay told Mickelson it was a 6-iron. He had a hand on the club, ready to pull it, but Mackay saw a familiar glint growing in Mickelson’s eyes.
“I’m just waiting for him to say something, and he goes, `I’d love a good 7 here,’” Mackay said.
A 7-iron? From 216 yards?
“I said, `Oh my God,’ before I could catch it,” Mackay said. “I didn’t mean to say `Oh my God.’”
Mickelson waggled that 7-iron over his ball before making a hard lash, unleashing a big, sweeping hook that worked its way beautifully to the flagstick, kicking up and rolling out to within 9 feet of the hole. Mickelson made birdie there.
“He told me, walking up, that when I said `Oh my God,’ he took it as a challenge,” Mackay said.
The whole day was a challenge answered.
With a 9-under-par 63, Mickelson got himself back in the Wells Fargo Championship, rocketing up the leaderboard to within two shots of J.B. Holmes (66) going into Sunday’s final round.
A round of seven birdies and an eagle moved Mickelson from a tie for 30th to third place.
“It was fun,” said Brendon de Jonge, who played alongside Mickelson. “Phil kept making birdies and the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger and louder and louder.”
Mickelson, 43, is aching for a victory. He’d love one heading into next month’s U.S. Open, just up the road at Pinehurst No. 2. Mickelson has a victory in each of the last 10 years, but he’s winless so far this season.
“I had a good round today, and it feels good, because it's been a rough year for me,” Mickelson said. “I haven't been healthy early on, and I haven't put it together.”
Mickelson hasn’t even logged a top-10 finish this year. There has been back pain, and a strained oblique muscle. There has been spotty play in between.
“It was a very meaningful round for me today,” Mickelson said. “I was able to put everything together. I played well from tee to green. I hit the ball well, put it in play. I hit good iron shots and was able to capitalize on those shots with some good putts.”
Under a sapphire sky, on a picturesque spring day, Mickelson picked up where Rory McIlroy left off, electrifying the grounds with birdie blitzes.
McIlroy was among the first players off, waking folks with a 7-under-par 65 that gives him a fighter’s chance going into Sunday. McIlroy is seven back, but he knows what can happen in a final round here. McIlroy shot 62 in the final round when he won Wells Fargo in 2010.
Nobody wants to win here more than Mickelson.
He loves Quail Hollow, but he’s 0-for-10 trying to win here, though he has come close. He has seven top-10 finishes on this course, five top-5 finishes.
“Just to be in contention, and to have a chance at a golf course that I've become so close to over the years, I'm excited about tomorrow's round,” Mickelson said. “My game is starting to feel sharp, and, mentally, I was much more focused throughout the entire round today.”
Mickelson looked like he was going to do something historic early. After opening with a pair of pars, he made five birdies and an eagle over the next six holes. He made the turn in 29.
On the front nine, Mickelson hit every green in regulation. He hit every fairway but one. He ended the day hitting 15 greens and 10 of 14 fairways. More importantly, he needed just 25 putts. That was a big deal because he needed 34 in his sloppy 75 on Friday.
“My game just didn't feel that far off,” Mickelson said. “It just kind of clicked today. Sometimes, the ball just goes in the hole, and, sometimes, it doesn't.
“I didn't walk away very discouraged. I felt like I was pretty close, and I just came out today with a new energy and a new excitement.”
Mickelson will be looking to follow the same formula to a trophy on Sunday.