CHARLOTTE — Rory McIlroy knows what it is like to be in the lead at the Wells Fargo Championship. That’s where he is – but tied with six others – after a chilly, soggy first round Thursday at Quail Hollow Club.
McIlroy shot a 5-under 67, joining former Duke player Nate Smith, Ryan Moore, Robert Garrigus, rookie Derek Ernst and Daniel Summerhays atop a crowded leader board.
Right behind that group are six more at 68 – Boo Weekley, Phil Mickelson, Kevin Streelman, Zach Johnson, Lucas Glover and Jason Kokrak.
McIlroy, the world’s second-ranked player who won the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship and lost in a three-way playoff to Rickie Fowler last season, strung together four consecutive birdies on the front nine, then birdied Nos. 10-11 and No. 18 to give him a share of the lead.
“This is a place where I’ve always felt comfortable and I played well,” said McIlroy, who is chasing his first victory of the season.
It has been a soggy week, making Quail Hollow play longer than its 7,492 yards.
“This is as long as I can remember the course playing,” said Glover, a former Clemson player who won at Quail Hollow in 2011. “I think it’s just due to the rain early in the week and the moisture in the air. It hasn’t had the opportunity to firm up.”
The benign conditions helped keep the field bunched. By the time the day was finished, more than one-third of the field was within four strokes of the lead.
Two of the leaders who played late into the afternoon had chances to be alone at the top.
Summerhays saw a 4-foot birdie putt slide past the hole on No. 18. Smith, a Monday qualifier who was alone in the lead after he birdied No. 16, missed a 4-footer on No. 17 for a bogey.
Ernst, who was a tournament alternate before he got a call Monday telling him he was in the field, made an early run, making consecutive birdies on Nos. 14 through 17.
Watney birdied five of his final nine holes after starting his round on the 10th.
“You don’t always have a stretch like that,” he said. “You try to keep it going as long as you can.”
Playing in one of the day’s early groups when it was especially chilly and wet, Mickelson might have joined that tie for first had it not been for a bogey on the eighth hole after starting his round on No. 10. His drive smacked into a tree on the right side of the fairway and he had to hit his second shot from the tree’s base.
“Fortunately, when it was tough conditions, I played the harder holes and was able to make pars and had the opportunity on the easy holes to make birdies,” said Mickelson.
The rain and mist that have drenched Quail Hollow’s already-worn greens (two of which have been resodded and at least four others that are marked with brown patches) this week have helped keep the field tight. It could stay that way unless the weather dries up and temperatures rise.
“If someone gets really hot – but it’s really hard to make a lot of putts on these greens,” Johnson said of the chance someone could break from the field. “It’s really difficult to do.”
That could be McIlroy, whose game has been on the upswing the past month. He finished second in San Antonio the week before the Masters, where he tied for 25th.
“I’ve seen my game progress week by week, which is a good thing,” he said. “There are still 54 holes to play, but it’s a nice start here this week.”
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