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Phil Mickelson reminds Saudis why he might be worth their loot

Phil Mickelson leads first round of 2021 Wells Fargo Championship
Phil Mickelson (right) enjoys his round Thursday with playing competitor Joel Dahmen (left) at the Wells Fargo Championship. Mickelson, who hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since early 2019, shot 7-under 64 at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., for a 2-stroke lead. Dahmen signed for a 68 and shares 10th place.

Mickelson, a key target of upstart pro tour, shoots 7-under 64 to open 2-stroke lead at PGA Tour's Wells Fargo Championship

In the more than two years since Phil Mickelson last won on the PGA Tour, he has plummeted in the world ranking. He hasn’t finished among the top 20 in his past 16 starts worldwide. Though Saudi investors still see plenty of value in Mickelson, reportedly having offered him up to $100 million to defect to a proposed rival tour, he hasn’t cashed a winning ticket on the PGA Tour since Feb. 11, 2019 at Pebble Beach.

On Thursday in Charlotte, N.C., Mickelson looked a lot like the guy who has won 44 times on the PGA Tour, including five major titles. Other than an early bogey, he played near-flawless golf, shooting 7-under 64 at Quail Hollow Club to open a two-stroke lead in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship. (For first-round scores, click here.)

“It was obviously a lot of fun,” said Mickelson, 50, who has slipped nearly 100 spots in the world order, to No. 115, during those winless two years. “The biggest thing for me was being able to stay present and focus on each shot. My mind has had a tendency to wander. I hit a lot of good shots and had a good day.”

Starting on the back nine, Mickelson made a two-putt birdie at the par-5 10th but gave the stroke right back when he failed to get up and down after missing the green at the par-4 11th. He ran off three consecutive birdies, at Nos. 14-16, before adding another birdie at the 18th to turn in 4 under. Mickelson hit a wedge to 5 feet for a birdie at No. 1, his 10th hole of the day, before adding two more 5-foot birdie putts, on Nos. 7 and 8. Mickelson displayed a sharp iron game. He hit 14 of 18 greens, and six of his seven birdies came from inside of 6 feet.

“I really like the golf course,” he said of the 1959 George Cobb design, which first welcomed the PGA Tour in 1969 and will be the site of the 2022 Presidents Cup matches. “I think it’s one of the best courses, tee to green. Great mixture of hard pars and birdie opportunities. It’s that mixture that I really like. It makes the course a lot more fun to play.”

Keegan Bradley, who finished runner-up last week at the Valspar Championship, continued his good form with a 5-under 66 and share of second with South Korea’s Kyoung-Hoon Lee.

Peter Malnati, who had missed eight the cut in his eight previous starts, shot 67 and was among six players tied for fourth. Justin Thomas, who won the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow and entered the week as one of the favorites, shot 2-under 69.

Bryson DeChambeau, in his first start since the Masters, shot 70. He got derailed with a bogey-double bogey stretch on Nos. 14-15 before he birdied two of the final three holes on what is known as the “Green Mile.”

Rory McIlroy, a two-time winner at Quail Hollow, shot 72.

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