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Race to the Finish Line

Quail Hollow ChampionshipCHARLOTTE, N.C. – Anyone who assumed the Quail Hollow buzz had jumped town on a Friday charter bound for Isleworth must have missed the mob scene that enveloped the 15th green as Phil Mickelson coaxed yet another must-make putt into the hole.

At the time, the birdie moved Lefty one behind the Monday qualifying pace setter Billy Mayfair and prompted high-fives and hysteria all around. Beatlemania meet a blueblood sport in need of a boost.

Golf is at its best with Tiger Woods lurking about – even a world No. 1 firing on limited cylinders. But 35,000 crowded around leafy Quail Hollow on Saturday proved that even without the alpha male the ancient game can still entertain.

Billy Mayfair
Billy Mayfair is stalking his first Tour title since 1998. (Getty Images)
Mickelson backed up before he was done, although his 1 over par trip through the Draconian “Green Mile” was a victory of game management if not math, leaving Mayfair to sleep on a stroke-a-side advantage.

So far this week the thick-waisted five-time PGA Tour winner has posted rounds of 65-68-68-71 in greater Charlotte, a 272 total that would have been good enough for outright victories at six of the first seven Quail Hollow Championships. But that 65 came on Monday, just 45 minutes off the plane from New Orleans, at a nondescript qualifier on a nondescript golf course.

“Any time you can go out there and shoot 65, which I think is my lowest round this year, it gives you confidence,” said Mayfair, who had his wife Tammi on the bag for the Monday four-spotter. “You can hit the ball as good as you want and putt as good as you want, but if you're not shooting the numbers, the confidence isn't there, and I'm starting to shoot the numbers.”

Mayfair, whose best finish this year is a tie for 23rd in Mexico, also has some local knowledge. His proper caddie used to loop at Quail Hollow and has guided his man to the top of the leaderboard and into second place for putts per green in regulation (1.59), a key stat at this Mini-Masters.

Mayfair’s last two Tour tilts came in 1998 at the now-defunct Buick Open and the tournament formerly known as the Nissan Open. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is how the old school ballstriker is picking apart a golf course that seems to give and take with equal abandon.

But Mayfair continues to plug along. It’s a good show, but we liked the original better last July at Turnberry. It’s hard to hedge bets against Mayfair, as likeable a Tour pro as exists, but the pedigrees in the rearview are impossible to ignore.

Tied with Mickelson two adrift is a resurgent Davis Love IV . . . eh, Love III, but the new edition is swinging like he’s never needed an MRI of his neck and putting like a man with a secret.

Late Wednesday afternoon on Quail Hollow’s practice putting green, Love rifled 5 footer after 5 footer into the center of the cup and rattled off reassuring clips, “Straight down the line.”

Last week at Sea Island (Ga.) Resort, Love was plowing through range balls when he noticed the heels on his clubs were too pronounced, causing too many shots to shoot left. On Tuesday at Quail Hollow he had all of the heels grinded down and for three days he hasn’t missed a shot left.

“Yesterday I hit the ball real well, one of the best ballstriking rounds certainly in a while,” said Love, who played the “Green Mile” in 1 under on Saturday. “Good ballstriking all week.”

And then there is Mickelson, seemingly remade by the emotion of a third green jacket and back on solid foods again. He can’t say the same about his game, but then when you hole nearly every pressure putt you face scratchy ballstriking can be forgiven.

“I didn’t have great control over my ballstrikng but controlled my misses,” said Mickelson, who was playing from the short grass just 50 percent of the time from the tee. “I played smart.”

Mickelson planned to talk with swing coach Butch Harmon on Saturday evening and will be back at the office early Sunday looking for answers, his second consecutive victory and his fourth consecutive with Woods in the field. It all adds up to a powerful tonic that eases the blow of Woods’ two-and-done week.

As Mickelson made his way to the tony Quail Hollow clubhouse late Saturday an over-served member of the mob barked, “Tiger who?”

It may not be the best show on earth, but it’s not bad.