CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The crowd was so big and boisterous Saturday that it made Jonathan Byrd a little uncomfortable. Seeing his name atop the leaderboard? Byrd is getting used to that.
The guy who only last October was worried about keeping his PGA Tour card ran off a blistering stretch of birdies in the Wells Fargo Championship for a 5-under 67, giving him a one-shot lead as he goes for his third win in seven months.
“Twelve months ago, I would never have thought that could happen,” he said. “But now, the way my game is, why couldn’t it happen? I’m playing well. I feel like I have all the tools to play well. I’m just going to play, and then when it’s all over, I’ll enjoy whatever I’ve done.”
Byrd was at 15-under 201, a score he didn’t imagine until his hot streak.
He was in the mix with a half-dozen other players who were trying to keep in range of Pat Perez when Byrd ran off five birdies in six holes to start the back nine. The one hole he didn’t birdie might have been his best putt – a 7-footer that broke sharply to the right.
“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.
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.
“It was kind of scrappy all the way around,” Perez said. “I played pretty good to shoot 70, I guess.”
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.
It starts with Byrd and Perez, who players whose contrast starts with their pace of play. Byrd is on the deliberate side, while Perez wastes no time. On the sixth hole, with Byrd in the group ahead, the caddies were no more than 10 feet off the green when Perez had hit his tee shot into the par 3.
Perez isn’t the least bit worried.
“I wait every single shot, every single day on the PGA Tour, so I’ve gotten really used to doing that,” Perez said.
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 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.
“Somebody is going to have to get off to a good start,” Glover said. “Jonathan is a great front-runner. He’s playing so well. I played with him Tuesday and saw him at home the last couple weeks. He’s playing great. It’s going to take a good start and a low round because he’s playing well enough to where he could shoot in the 60s again tomorrow and blow everybody away. But we’ll see.”
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.