CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jason Day sputtered at the start and finally hit his stride for a 4-under 67 to build a two-shot lead going into the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship and a chance for his second victory this year.
Peter Uihlein, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy all showed early Saturday that it was a softer, gentler Quail Hollow under an overcast sky. Uihlein had a 62, one off the course record, and finished before the leaders began the third round. He remained atop the leaderboard until midday through the round.
Mickelson had a 64, his lowest score of the season. McIlroy had to settle for a 66.
Day blasted a 9-iron out of the left rough with the wind at his back from 195 yards to 18 inches on No. 9 for his first birdie, and he was on his way. He had five birdies over the last 10 holes, and he made a daring par on the 18th. With his bare feet in the stream and the ball on the bank well above his feet, he hit a full shot to the back of the green for a two-putt par.
Day was at 10-under 203.
Nick Watney overcame a double bogey on the par-5 10th hole with four birdies over his last six holes for a 66. He will be in the final group for the first time in nearly four years as he tries to win for the first time since a back injury two years ago.
Tiger Woods failed to take advantage of a course that was 228 yards shorter and soft enough that the players actually found pitch marks on the greens. Woods finally got going on the back nine with three straight birdies, but a three-putt bogey on the final hole gave him a 68. He was nine shots behind.
Peter Malnati’s 36-hole lead didn’t last long. He had a pair of double bogeys, shot 75 and fell seven shots behind.
PGA Tour rookie Aaron Wise nearly had a collapse late until he salvaged a most unlikely bogey.
Wise, the NCAA champion from Oregon two years ago, pulled his approach left of the 18th green. It bounded over the stream to the other side. With his ball on a sharp downslope a few feet from the rock-framed banks of the stream, he considered a penalty drop that would have taken double bogey out of the picture. Instead, he tried a flop shot and his wedge slid under the ball for a whiff.
He hit the next one across the green to 40 feet, and knocked that in for bogey. Two bogeys over the last three holes gave him a 70.
“That was going to be a devastating hole,” he said. “So to turn it into a bogey ... it gives me a shot tomorrow.”
Day is in charge, but not in the clear.
He has won four out of five times when he’s had the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour, and it helps that he doesn’t have too much experience behind him. Watney hasn’t won in nearly six years. Uihlein wound up three shots behind at 7-under 206 and still hasn’t won on the PGA Tour. Also three shots back were Bryson DeChambeau (66), Paul Casey (69) and Wise.
Mickelson was among those four shots behind. Rickie Fowler might have been closer than six shots if not for a four-putt double bogey from 20 feet on No. 17. McIlroy, meanwhile, was seven behind.
Day didn’t see that Uihlein had shot 62, or any of the other great scores from the early starters. That was probably a good thing.
“I just stayed in my lane,” Day said.
He didn’t panic when he was 1 over through the tough six holes at the start, or when he failed to birdie either of the next two holes that are the easiest for scoring on the front. Instead, it was a 9-iron from the rough on which he judged the wind at his back and the bounce in fairway to near perfection.
“Today it was a bit of a struggle through eight holes,” Day said. “I hit a nice shot into the ninth hole, and a good drive down 10 started getting things in the right direction. I knew things were going to turn around.”
Day also took on a bold shot at the 18th with his feet in the water of a stream that winds down the left side, especially with a left pin position. The last time he played Quail Hollow on a Saturday, he tried to play out of the trees and made an 8 that took him out of contention in the PGA Championship.
Day said this shot wasn’t that tough, even with his hands gripping down to the steel on a wedge.
“The biggest thing is contact,” he said. And it worked out fine, just like the rest of his round.