Mickelson roared into contention by playing a six-hole stretch in 7-under par on the front nine, and keeping bogeys off his card with a wedge that danced around the cup on the 18th for a 9-under 63.
He was leading when he finished and wound up two shots behind J.B. Holmes, who overtook Martin Flores for the lead on the last hole.
“I don’t think I’ll be leading at the end of the day because I think there are some birdies out there,” Mickelson said. “But just to be in contention, and to have a chance at a golf course that I’ve become so close to over the years, I’m excited about tomorrow’s round.”
Holmes, pounding tee shots and gaining confidence along the way, had a 9-iron left on the 490-yard closing hole and made a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe. That gave him a 6-under 66, and it made him the outright leader when Flores made his only big mistake of the round. Flores pulled his tee shot into the stream that winds along the left side of the 18th fairway. He at least gave himself a chance to save par, but missed a 20-foot putt and had to settle for a 69.
Holmes goes into the final round with a shot at coming back from injuries, one of them far more noteworthy than the others. He had brain surgery in 2011 to remove a piece of his skull. Then, he broke his ankle in 2013, and time off allowed him to have surgery on his left elbow.
And now he takes a one-shot lead into the final round at 13-under 203.
“I’ve worked really hard to get there and it would be a great accomplishment to come back and get a win in the bag,” Holmes said.
Flores feels the same way. His best finish in four seasons on the PGA Tour was a tie for fourth in the John Deere Classic last year, when he closed with a 63 and finished one shot out of a three-way playoff won by fellow Dallas resident Jordan Spieth.
Flores describes himself as a flat-liner, and he played the part Saturday, the first time he ever played in the final group on the weekend. He never looked at a leaderboard because he figured it didn’t matter on a Saturday. He didn’t let adrenaline get the best of him when he rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt from just off the 12th green for his third straight birdie and a two-shot lead. He never came seriously close to a bogey until the 18th hole.
And not even that bothered him. So when asked if he could be the winner Sunday, Flores shrugged and said, “Why not me?”
“I’ve been working really hard, feeling great about my game,” he said. “I’m going to go out there and attack. If I win, I win. If I don’t, I don’t. I’m going to keep working until I do.”
Kevin Kisner had a 68 and was three shots behind. Justin Rose bogeyed his last hole for a 71 and was four shots back, along with Jason Bohn, who made three birdies over his last four holes for a 67. Former PGA champion Martin Kaymer bogeyed his last two holes for a 70 and was five behind.
The last 54-hole leader to win at Quail Hollow was Anthony Kim in 2008.
That could bode well for Mickelson, off to his worst start to a season in 11 years.
Not since 2003 — the last year he went winless on the PGA Tour — has Mickelson gone this deep into a year without winning. Worse yet, he doesn’t even have a top 10. He had to deal with a back injury in San Diego and an oblique muscle strain in Texas. He missed the cut at the Masters last month for the first time in 17 years.
“I had a good round today, and it feels good because it’s been a rough year for me this year,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t been healthy early on and I haven’t put it together. And to have a good round today, good round the first round, this is a good start.”
Mickelson said he didn’t feel far off after his 75 on Friday, and he was right. He was helped by a couple of long birdie putts on the fourth and sixth holes, and by a 20-foot eagle putt on the par-5 seventh hole that revved up the crowd on a gorgeous day of sunshine.
Rory McIlroy set the pace early for a day of low scoring with a 65 that brought back memories of 2010, when he made the cut on the number and went 66-62 to win for the first time on the PGA Tour. He was four shots behind that year going into Sunday.
But with Holmes and Flores finishing strong, McIlroy goes into the last round seven shots behind.