World No. 2 Rory McIlroy headlines a cluster of seven players at five-under after shooting 67 in Thursday's Round 1 action at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Among the mixed bag of golfers knotted atop the leaderboard are five-time Tour winner Nick Watney and Monday qualifier Nate Smith.
A powerful trio of Americans featuring Phil Mickelson, Boo Weekley and Zach Johnson sits just one shot off the pace at minus-four.
Here is a look at the logjam that defined the rainy day at Quail Hollow Club. For complete scores, head to PGA.com.
|T1 ||Rory McIlroy ||-5|
|T1||Nick Watney ||-5|
|T1||Ryan Moore ||-5|
|T1||Daniel Summerhays ||-5|
|T1||Robert Garrigus ||-5|
|T1||Derek Ernst ||-5|
|T1||Nate Smith ||-5|
|T8||Phil Mickelson ||-4|
|T8||Boo Weekley ||-4|
|T8||Zach Johnson ||-4|
Note: All statistics and video are courtesy of PGATour.com.
A lot of players in the heat of contention enjoyed bursts of brilliance on Thursday. As hinted at before, the greens were very receptive due to damp conditions.
Watney had a boring nine pars as he started on the back nine but made five birdies en route to a 31 on his inward half of holes. A run of three in a row from No. 1 through 3 was capped by this stellar approach on the par four, which Watney calmly converted:
Let's look at some of the biggest storylines entering Friday.
Is Rory back?
McIlroy birdied six out of eight holes in the middle of his round, although he did make two bogeys in that stretch. In any event, a nice approach and a smooth roll on the final hole's bumpy putting surface gave McIlroy a solid round of 67.
ESPN's Justin Ray alludes to just how big of a breakthrough this is for the Northern Irishman, who will turn 24 on Saturday:
Justin Ray @JustinRayGC
Rory McIlroy opens with 67 (-5). In previous 5 opening rounds on @PGATOUR this year, he never broke par (combined +2).5/2/2013, 9:49:27 PM
Entering the tournament, McIlroy's stroke average in the first round was 72—tied for 142nd on Tour.
McIlroy displayed a mostly peerless showcase of ball-striking, as he found 15 out of 18 greens in regulation and showed no ill effects from the relatively new Nike equipment. His swing is a lot more consistent, and he isn't getting stuck on the downswing as he was when he struggled throughout early 2013.
Quail Hollow was the site of McIlroy's first PGA Tour victory in 2010, and he lost on a playoff to Rickie Fowler last year. In order for another potential showdown between two of golf's most exciting young guns, the defending champion will need to improve upon his opening round of even-par 72.
Phil the Thrill continues Quail Hollow prowess
Another elite player who enjoys this venue very much is Phil Mickelson, who has five top-five finishes in nine previous outings.
The three-time Masters champion suffered through a horrendous weekend at Augusta National, but in his first event since, his short game bailed him out in a big way.
After a solid two-under on the front nine, the veteran took advantage of prime position off the tee immediately after the turn and made birdie at No. 1:
"Lefty" made only one bogey in his round of 68, and the key to that was the five-plus strokes he gained on the field in putting. His scrambling was phenomenal throughout, as he hit less than half of fairways and just over half of greens in regulation.
Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman hilariously summed up Mickelson's day, referencing his Phrankenwood club—which is the size of a three-wood but pounds the ball as far as a driver:
Kelly Tilghman @KellyTilghmanGC
Phil Mickelson, with his son of Phrankenwood driver, shot phour under at Wells Phargo. Looks phorward to going low on Phriday.5/2/2013, 5:42:14 PM
The fact that Mickelson scored so well is encouraging. If his long game gets even remotely on track, Mickelson will be in contention come Sunday.
The ultimate underdog story
Smith did not even play on the PGA Tour in 2012 after failing to hold his card as a rookie the previous season. Amidst a field of world-class players, though, he held his own on Thursday.
A stretch of five birdies in seven holes vaulted the 29-year-old near the top alongside many marquee names, and at No. 16 he got as low as six-under to hold the lead briefly by himself:
Even prior to this improbable run to the 18-hole lead in Charlotte, Smith experienced some publicity thanks to Tour rookie James Hahn, who put a sign on Smith's bag to have players sign it for "charity." Golf analyst and Sports Illustrated contributor Stephanie Wei captured it on Twitter:
Stephanie Wei @StephanieWei
Too. Funny. Here's @NateSmithPGA's bag, thanks to @jameshahnPGA's prank! Lots of signatures! Nice work, James! http://t.co/Tn4gbJ3JKY5/2/2013, 5:21:20 PM
When Smith pulled a four-footer on the par-three 17th hole, it ruined his aspirations to take the lead on his own, as it was his first dropped shot of the day. However, he can't be displeased with the exposure he's received early in the week—both on and off the course.
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