It was vintage Phil Mickelson on Thursday at the Quail Hollow Club, as the 50-year old legend opened with a brilliant round of 64 to secure a two-shot lead at the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship.
Mickelson, who began his day on the 10th tee, got off to a birdie-bogey-par-par start but then hit the gas pedal, reeling off five birdies in a six-hole stretch and added two late gains to secure sole possession of the marquee spot on 7 under.
It’s the 30th first-round lead of Mickelson’s career, and first since the 2019 Desert Classic when he finished runner-up to Adam Long.
Afterwards, Mickelson credited his mental preparations for his improved performance.
“Just focus,” said Mickelson, when asked about the improvement from last week when he missed the cut. “I’m just present on each shot. This course holds my attention.
“I’ve been doing some like, you know, some mental exercises and so forth just to try to get my focus to elongate over five hours and so forth.
“That’s been a real struggle for me the last few years because physically, there’s nothing physically holding me back from playing at a high level, but you cannot make mistakes at this level.
“The guys out here are just so good, and I’ve been making a lot of errors, just simply not being mentally sharp.”
One off the pace was Keegan Bradley, who finished solo runner-up last week at the Valspar. The 34-year old Vermont native posted a bogey-free 5-under 66.
“Well, I just played really well and then I made some really nice putts,” said Bradley, who was tied for second with Kyoung-Hoon Lee.
“I made a really nice putt for par on 9, kept me going. Made a 50 footer on 17, kind of a bonus one.
“Man, playing really well. To go around this course, shoot that score with no bogeys is serious, so I’m excited about that.”
Joining Bradley on the bogey-free list was Peter Malnati, who was among six players tied for fourth on 4 under. The 33-year old Indiana native led the field in strokes gained: around the green en route to a 67.
“It did feel really good to go around this track and never be severely out of position,” said Malnati. “I hit a bad drive on seven actually now that I think about it, but other than that, to never really be out of position on this golf course is a big accomplishment and it felt really nice.”
Malnati, who has missed the cut in 10 of his last 12 starts, including eight straight, was asked how he’s dealt with the lengthy slump.
“Yeah, that’s the best thing I can say about it,” said Malnati, who is ranked No. 165 in the world. “I’ve had some Friday nights and Saturday morning when I was just really bummed, really down. It stinks.
“But at the end of the day, I get to wake up every morning and I’m playing golf on the PGA Tour.
“Probably played well enough already this year to guarantee I get to do it this year and next year.
“That’s a dream come true. So my goodness, how bad can it be.”
Joining Malnati in the six-player jogjam were Tommy Fleetwood, Luke List, Keith Mitchell, Kyle Stanley, and Gary Woodland.
Eight more players rounded out the top-10 on 3 under, including Joel Dahmen, who was paired with Mickelson.
“Yeah, I played really well. I was pretty happy. I won about a month ago, but I’ve only made two cuts this calendar year and I knew my game was kind of trending,” said Dahmen, who won the Corales event last month.
“Played pretty well last week at home, so I could kind of feel this was it. I love this event, I’ve played well here in the past, so I was just trying not to get my butt kicked too bad today.”
One further back was world No. 2 Justin Thomas, who opened with a 2 under 69 to sit T18, one shot clear of 2012 Fargo winner Rickie Fowler.
Rory McIlory shot 72 and was T73.
2021 Wells Fargo Championship
Wells Fargo Top 5: Round 1
Pos-Player-To Par (Score)
1. Phil Mickelson -7 (64)
2. Keegan Bradley -6 (65)
2. Kyoung-Hoon Lee -6 (65)
4. Luke List -4 (66)
4. Tommy Fleetwood -4 (66)
4. Keith Mitchell -4 (66)
4. Gary Woodland -4 (66)
4. Peter Malnati -4 (66)
4. Kyle Stanley -4 (66)