CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Jonathan Byrd lived up to his surname Saturday in the Wells Fargo Championship.
In the mix with a half-dozen other players trying to keep in range of Pat Perez, Byrd ran off five birdies in six holes to start the back nine and finished with a 5-under 67 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.
The one hole he didn’t birdie might have been his best putt—a 7-footer with a sharp break to the right into the grain.
“You won’t believe how much this putt breaks,” Phil Mickelson said, standing to the back of the green after his own remarkable par. Byrd poured it into the heart, birdied the next two holes and was on his way.
He was at 15-under 201 and will try to win for the third time in the last seven months on the PGA Tour.
“I don’t know if I’m going to win,” Byrd said. “But I’m playing good enough to win.
Perez had a hard-fought 70, missing fairways early in the round and rarely converting birdie chances throughout the back nine until a slight mistake turned into his best-looking shot. Taking a little off a 7-iron, he pulled it slightly on the 17th and saw it sail right at the flag and stop some 5 feet behind the pin for a birdie.
Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover (69) and former British Open champion Stewart Cink (68), who have not won since capturing their majors in the summer of 2009, were three shots back.
The top eight players were separated by five shots, which isn’t much on a Quail Hollow course where last year Rory McIlroy closed with a 62 for his only PGA Tour victory.
Missing from the mix is Mickelson.
The three-time Masters champion was in range and was poised to make a move with a brilliant par save on the 12th, a mini-flop from a downhill lie to a green that ran away and broke sharply to the left. It stopped inches away.
But he hit flubbed a bunker shot on the 14th to lose an easy chance at birdie, then hit tee shots into the water on the par-5 15th (bogey) and the par-3 17th (double bogey) on his way to a 74. Mickelson has hit five balls in the water this week.
J.B. Holmes had an amazing stretch on the back nine – five shots to play two holes when he holed a 5-iron on the 15th for an albatross, the rarest score in golf, and followed that with a birdie on the 16th. That led to a 65, although he was six shots behind, along with Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, who had a 68.
The excitement was almost too much for Byrd.
He was playing with Mickelson, the biggest draw at Quail Hollow, and while it wasn’t the first time, he could feel the energy. The gallery caved in around him going from green-to-tee on just about every hole, with young fans holding out hands to be tapped.
Mickelson gets that all the time – Byrd, not so much.
“I’ve never high-fived so much in my life,” Byrd said.
That only concerned him because he doesn’t play with a glove, and part of him wondered if fans had just put on sunscreen.
“Phil is used to that,” he said. “He just flashes that smile. I want to keep my head down.”
The buzz in the crowd contributed to a slow start, a bogey on the opening hole and failing to birdie the par-5 fifth. But he hit a nifty chip from the side of the seventh for a tap-in birdie, nearly drove the short eighth hole and made birdie, then took off on the back nine.
His longest birdie putt was a 10-footer on the 13th. The rest was about taking advantage of the par 5s and the short par-4 14th. In the middle of that stretch was the 7-foot par on the 12th, which Byrd called his toughest putt on the back nine.
Watching Mickelson hit his chip allowed him to see the degree of break, and he poured it in the center cut. Then came two more birdies, and Byrd was surprised to hear after his round he had made seven birdies in a nine-hole stretch.
He needed them all to get the 54-hole lead. No one is sure how many he’ll need Sunday to collect another win.
Players wore black ribbons in honor of Seve Ballesteros, who died early Saturday in Spain. PGA Tour officials said play will stop at 3:08 p.m. on Sunday for one minute in memory of the Spanish great.