CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Winless for almost 12 years on the PGA Tour, Billy Mayfair will take whatever he can get.
There was that Friday game he won a few weeks ago at Whisper Rock, the Arizona club where members include Geoff Ogilvy and Paul Casey. He won a match against his wife, a good college player. And he won a qualifier Monday, significant because it gave Mayfair a tee time in the Quail Hollow Championship.
Now comes a chance for the real thing.
Mayfair kept the ball in play Saturday and kept the lead at Quail Hollow, shooting a 1-under 71 to take a two-shot lead over Masters champion Phil Mickelson and Carolina favorite Davis Love III.
A victory would be his first since the 1998 Buick Open, and the first time a Monday qualifier won on the PGA Tour since Fred Wadsworth in the 1986 Southern Open.
“Today was a real test for me,” Mayfair said. “I kept it going for 18 holes and still have the lead going into tomorrow.”
It is hard for Mayfair not to get caught up in the possibilities.
He lost his PGA Tour card after the worst season of his career, and a victory would sure take care of that. He only got into Quail Hollow because of a Monday qualifier that he almost missed. Mayfair was late arriving in Charlotte, had to race to the course to make his tee time and then shot a 65, his best score of the year.
All that’s left is to hold off Mickelson, Love and a collection of players who have won far more recently than Mayfair.
“I’ve got to put it out of my mind,” he said. “I’ve got to use my 21 years of experiences out here, and I’ve got to say, ‘You know what? I’ve been out here.’ I’m a tour veteran, I’ve got a lot of veterans that are chasing me. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I know what I need to do tomorrow and how to handle it. And try to do the best I can.”
He has been good enough so far, finishing three rounds at 9-under 207. It’s his first 54-hole lead in four years.
Mickelson, in his first start since winning a third green jacket, overcame food poisoning at the start of the week and a few errant shots to put himself in a great position to join a strong list of champions at Quail Hollow. He birdied the par 5s on the back nine, and he closed with a tough two-putt from 60 feet for a 71.
He made par, and he made a point.
It was such an impossible putt that Mickelson told his caddie to leave the pin in the cup because he wasn’t aiming at the hole, wanting to avoid any chance of the ball going down a slope. Instead, he hit it well to the right, then made about a 6-footer for par.
“For as beautifully designed as this golf course is tee to green, the greens are by far the worst designed greens we play on tour,” Mickelson said. “Even though they’re in immaculate shape, I would say that 18 would be the worst green that we have on tour, except that it’s not even the worst on this golf course – 12 is.”
Love birdied three of his last five holes for a 4-under 68 and will play in the final group with Mayfair.
For a tournament that no longer has Tiger Woods, who missed the cut, it is not lacking in star power. Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera had a 73 and was in the group at 6-under 210 that included Pebble Beach winner Dustin Johnson (72) and J.J. Henry (71).
Another shot back was Jim Furyk, who already has won twice this year. Furyk had a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole that caught the lip and spun 5 feet away, he wound up three-putting for bogey. He still shot 71 and was right in the mix.
So was Rory McIlroy, who had to make eagle on his 16th hole Friday to make the cut on the number. Playing early Saturday, McIlroy made birdie on half of his holes for a 66. By the end of the day, he was only four shots out of the lead.
Ten players were within four shots of the top, a margin that doesn’t seem so large considering how long it has been since Mayfair has been tested like this.
The 43-year-old Mayfair is a five-time winner and still the only player to beat Woods in a playoff on the PGA Tour. That was in the 1998 Nissan Open, and he won the Buick Open later that year. That was his last victory.
He was tested the most Saturday in the middle of his round, hitting his tee shot into the creek on the par-5 seventh and making a bogey as his lead dropped to one shot. He made a tough par after hitting a tree with his tee shot on the next hole, made a good par save on the ninth, then hit a wedge to about 6 feet for birdie on the 10th.
“Once I birdied 10, I kept the momentum going,” Mayfair said.
Mickelson didn’t have much and was happy to shoot the score he did. He made birdie after hitting a spectator in the head on the par-5 10th, and despite not feeling crisp, made only three bogeys.
Mickelson has never won in his first start after the Masters.
“I didn’t have it today,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t have great control over my ball-striking and missed a number of putts that I probably could have made. But I controlled the misses, I kept the round in check, and because of the difficult conditions was able to shoot a number that kept me in contention for Sunday. So I’m excited about my opportunities tomorrow.”