CHARLOTTE — Jason Day was forced to hit a majority of his approach shots from the rough in Saturday’s round of the Wells Fargo Championship, but none were in as precarious of a spot as he was in for his final approach shot.
With shoes and socks off and his pants rolled up, Day was shin-deep in the creek that runs on the left side of the 18th fairway with his ball barely on dry land, but he handled it like he had the rest of his shots into the green on his back nine as the shot hit the center of the green and rolled pin-high to 31 feet away from the flag that he safely two-putted to finish off a 4-under 67 and take the 54-hole lead.
“The biggest thing is that my short game has been spot on the last three days,” Day said. “It’s exciting and I’m definitely happy with how I handled myself, especially through the first eight holes, more so than I was of the back nine.
“I’m just taking tomorrow that I’ve just got try and extend that lead every time I’m playing against someone. If they have a birdie, I’ve got to try and somehow make a birdie to extend it.”
After 54 holes, Day leads Nick Watney in second by two strokes after he fired a 66 in the third round. Peter Uihlien shot a 62 to meet up with Bryson DeChambeau and Paul Casey in a three-way tie for third at 7 under. Twenty-four players are within seven shots of the lead heading into Sunday’s final round.
Day’s length helped him on the final nine holes of his third round at the Quail Hollow Club after a front nine where he failed to hit a fairway, but still was able to stay near the top of the leaderboard.
After falling to 1 over in his round after a bogey on the fifth hole, Day’s approach into the ninth green came within two feet from landing for an eagle. That tap-in birdie opened the floodgates.
“Today the first eight holes were a struggle for me,” Day said. “I just couldn’t find the face. After the second shot on 9 and the tee shot on 10, I started getting the timing right and hit it a lot better on the back side.”
Over his next six holes after making the turn fresh off the birdie, the Australian had four birdies and kept his monster long drives in the fairway. In total, Day hit six of 14 fairways. With all six coming between holes Nos. 10 and 16.
Tough setups made the back nine harder the first two days than it was on Saturday, and the vulnerable back nine was taken over with low scores by Day and many other players in the third round.
“You’ve got to pick your spots where you can be aggressive,” Day said. “The back side was definitely a lot more gettable today, obviously showcased with a number of guys going low on the back side.”
With the driver in his hands, Day said he feels more comfortable and is hitting it better than he was two years ago when he won the PGA Championship and reached No. 1 in the world. Now sitting at 14th in the Official World Golf Rankings, he said the goal is to get back there now healthy after an injury-riddled season last year.
“This year I’ve kind of recommitted myself to try to get back to No. 1,” Day said. “I know that there’s a bunch of players in front of me that are trying to do the exact same thing and the guys behind me are trying to do the same thing. So I’ve got to get up every morning and do everything I possibly can to get back to the ultimate goal of getting back to No. 1.”
The scoreable conditions helped several players that had early morning tee times to make their move on Saturday as well. Tiger Woods and Uihlein both started their round at 2 over, and both found better fortune with the scoring conditions.
Uihlein threatened the course record held by Rory McIlroy on moving day with a 62, while Woods still was left puzzled with the speed of the greens.
The 28-year-old Uihlein used a stretch from No. 5 to 10 where he shot 7 under to start his charge, and then followed up with a pair of birdies on Nos. 14 and 15.
“The course is set up kind of a little bit easier than it was the first two days, for sure,” Uihlein said. “You’re trying to almost get through the first six holes. I had a really nice shot on 5, a good shot at 6, and after that I felt 7 through 15 is kind of where you get after it here.”
Sitting in a tie for 48th coming into the round, Uihlein felt there was only one way to go for him, but tying his career low round on Tour wasn’t on his mind.
“You’re lying 50th, you might as well try and blitz it a little bit and I was able to do that,” he said.
Phil Mickelson followed the lead of Uihlein two groups ahead of him to shoot a bogey-free 64 by going 5 under on the back nine to sit five shots back of Day in the lead.
Woods moved up 17 places on the leaderboard on Saturday with his first round in the 60s at 68 to sit at 1 under for the tournament, but still was not pleased with the flat stick that has left him confused on the greens at Quail Hollow Club.
“I still didn’t have enough pace on a couple that I just left on the lip,” he said. “I’m close, I’m hitting the ball well enough to contend, to win this golf tournament, but I haven’t made the putts.”
Woods spent time after his second round working on the practice green, and the effects showed on the back nine as he picked up birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 15 to drop to 2 under for the tournament before a 3-putt on the 18th green after his approach shot got him inside of 50 feet.
“I changed my stroke a little bit and went a little more old school, how I used to putt,” Woods said. “I was saying earlier I was so close to shooting about 7, 8 under today.”
Woods also had three birdies on a four-hole stretch on the front nine, coming on Nos. 5, 7 and 8. The seventh and eighth holes have served Woods well this week, coming into the final round 4 under on that stretch in the first three rounds.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.