CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) ― For someone playing so close to his house, Webb Simpson has been on edge all week.
The home crowd. Two rounds with Tiger Woods. His name atop the leaderboard at Quail Hollow alongside Rory McIlroy and so many others late Saturday afternoon. It has caused him to try extra hard to block everything out except the shot in front of him.
So far, it has worked better than he imagined.
Simpson broke out of a five-way tie for the lead with a 12-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, and a 3-under 69 gave him a one-shot lead over Ryan Moore and D.A. Points going into the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship.
“It seems like when guys on this level do get nervous, it seems like every time they focus a little better, they just tighten up their thoughts a lot better,” Simpson said. “Seems like when I’m more nervous, for the most part, I play better. It’s not a good thing when we get comfortable out there because you start getting lazy and losing focus on your target.”
This is no time to relax.
Ten players were separated by four shots going into Sunday on a course where anything can happen. Two years ago, McIlroy made the cut on the number, closed with a course-record 62 and won.
This time, McIlroy goes into the final round only two shots behind and playing better each day. He can go back to No. 1 in the world by finishing seventh, although what matters more is that trophy. He was among seven players who had a share of the lead at some point during the warm afternoon before he fell back with a three-putt bogey on the 16th and had to settle for a 66.
“I definitely feel like I’ve left a couple out there,” McIlroy said. “A 66 is a good score out there, and I feel like I’ve got another one of those scores in me, and looking forward to doing that tomorrow.”
Simpson was at 14-under 202.
Moore, penalized one shot Friday when his ball moved right before tapping in a 10-inch putt, had his first bogey-free round in 14 months and shot 68. Points, whose lone win came with Bill Murray as his partner at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last year, shot a 69.
McIlroy was joined at 204 by Nick Watney, the 36-hole leader who missed three birdie chances inside 15 feet on the back nine and finished his day by driving into the creek left of the 18th fairway and working hard for a bogey. He had a 72.
Rickie Fowler (67) and Stewart Cink, who took four putts from the front of the 18th green for a double bogey and a 71, were three shots behind.
The tone was set early, and the tournament became interesting late.
Phil Mickelson ran off four straight birdies on the back nine playing with Lee Westwood, though both had to settle for a 68 and wound up nine shots behind. Geoff Ogilvy had a 65 and thought he might need another one to have a chance. He finished right after the leaders teed off, and when the wind kicked up in the afternoon, the course played more difficult. Ogilvy was only four shots back.
Simpson has the crowd on his side, and it wasn’t hard to figure out. Watney blasted a beautiful drive on the par-5 15th, followed by a fairway metal into the wind to the fringe for a two-putt birdie and a share of the lead. Walking off the green, he looked back at the crowd clapping wildly for Simpson making birdie to join him atop the leaderboard.
“It’s like playing with Phil,” Watney said. “Visiting team.”
Watney wasn’t at all bitter about this. After all, he is staying with Simpson this week. They have a deal that low score takes out the garbage, a chore that falls to Watney.
McIlroy went 66-62 when he won the Wells Fargo two years ago. He was only six back going into the third round, and he said his task would be easier. He was joking, but he might have been right.
It already was going to be a good weekend. McIlroy went to dinner Friday night to celebrate his 23rd birthday, and he got quite a surprise when his parents, Gerry and Rose, flew up from Florida to join him. Then, McIlroy birdied his opening three holes and kept right on going.
He was particularly strong at the end of his round, ripping a drive 344 yards into the wind on the 15th that left him a 4-iron to the green. McIlroy didn’t care how far his drive went. He was more concerned with the leaderboard, and he liked what he saw.
The question is whether anyone else was paying attention.
“I hope so,” McIlroy said. “I’m not so sure. The guys that are at the top of the leaderboard are really accomplished players, and I’m just one of a bunch of guys that can go out and win there tomorrow. But maybe. Maybe if they see my name on the leaderboard, they might start to think about it a little bit more.”
Fowler, another 23-year-old, didn’t look intimidated. There was a backup on the tee at the par-3 17th. Fowler hit a tight draw to a tough pin, and walking off the tee, looked back at McIlroy and nodded to him with a smile.
The only time Fowler won as pro was in the Korean Open, and it came at McIlroy’s expense. More key for Fowler was the third round. It was only the third time in nine tries this year that he broke 70 in the third round, and those were his best finishes of the year.
“All in all, it was what we needed to do ― moving day, moving in the right direction, and put myself into a position where we can go out and have a little bit of fun tomorrow,” Fowler said.
Even so, the edge might go to McIlroy. He looks primed to go back to No. 1 for the third time this year. His game has looked sharper each day. And of the top 22 players going into the final round, he is the only player to have won this year.