CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Keith Mitchell already considered Quail Hollow Club one of his favorite places to play.
The Chattanooga native is doing his best to add to the high esteem he has for the North Carolina course and its annual PGA Tour event by making the Wells Fargo Championship his second career victory on golf's top circuit.
"I think the Wells Fargo in Charlotte is absolutely the best," Mitchell told the Times Free Press in late April when asked his favorite tournament besides the four majors and The Players Championship. "The fans are knowledgeable. The golf course is always in great shape, and the city always enjoys the golf tournament being there.
"I would definitely put Wells Fargo at the top of the list."
Mitchell shot a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 on Saturday, moving him to the top of the leaderboard at 9-under 204 through 54 holes with a two-stroke edge over four-time major champion Rory McIlroy (68) — the 32-year-old from Northern Ireland is a two-time winner at Quail Hollow — and Gary Woodland, who's chasing his first win since the 2019 U.S. Open.
Luke List, after a 68 with an eagle, three birdies and two bogeys, was another stroke back as he seeks his first PGA Tour victory. List, 36, has two wins on the Korn Ferry Tour, including at TPC Sawgrass — the home of The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida — in June 2020 when professional golf returned after a three-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along with Mitchell, that gives Baylor School two graduates in the top four heading into the final round.
"I just feel like everything's really working," said Mitchell, 29, whose first PGA Tour win was the 2019 Honda Classic. "My driver feels great, and around this place you've really got to drive it well. Really just trying to keep the ball in front of me right now and see what we can do tomorrow."
Sunday should be quite a show, or at least a loud one. The tournament was allowed 30% capacity, whatever that is on a sprawling golf course. Only a small majority of them are wearing masks, making it sound even louder.
Golf hasn't had this much noise, this much energy, since before the pandemic. Maybe it's just a coincidence that McIlroy is right back in the thick of it, playing in the final group for the first time since the 2020 Genesis Invitational, a month before golf shut down and fans were mostly kept away the rest of the year.
"It was buzzy, that atmosphere," McIlroy said of Saturday's third round. "Just so cool to play in an atmosphere like that again. I've missed it. I didn't think I would miss it as much as I did, but I really have. So to be in contention, to have the fans back, I really enjoyed it out there today and I'm excited about tomorrow."
Mitchell, who also felt drained of energy after the restart nearly a year ago, avoided the mistakes that slowed McIlroy and Woodland.
"Some golf courses on the PGA Tour you can hit bad shots, get away with it and still try to make birdie," Mitchell said. "You can't do that here. I think that's a true test of golf. I don't think golf would be fun if every course was like this. I just feel more comfortable around a tougher course."
If Mitchell wins Sunday, it will come exactly one week after he finished last in the Valspar Championship, a tumble owed to a closing 82. More than half of those strokes were on the green as he played with a bent putter — an equipment limitation not discovered until his swing coach picked up on Mitchell's problem Tuesday in Charlotte.
Mitchell, who briefly held the lead in the opening round Thursday, was tied for fifth entering the weekend and List was tied for 10th. The other Baylor graduate currently on the PGA Tour, Harris English, was tied for 24th after 36 holes, and he moved up one spot after a third-round 71 that had him at 1 under.
With more swirling wind and some pin positions on ridges, Saturday was a day for a little separation. It began with 23 players separated by four shots at the top of the leaderboard. Now there are six, with Scott Stallings (70) and Japan's Satoshi Kodaira (68) tied for fifth at 5 under.
"I'm excited to be in the position I'm in," McIlroy said. "I wasn't really expecting to be in this position coming into this week. I felt like I was still working on my game. So I just have to go out and try to play well again tomorrow and see where that leaves me."
Jaeger four back
Former Baylor and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga standout Stephan Jaeger was tied for sixth and four strokes out of the lead entering the final round of the Korn Ferry Tour's Simmons Bank Open for the Snedeker Foundation, a tournament being played in Middle Tennessee.
Jaeger, who shared the first-round lead with Austin Smotherman and was a stroke behind him in second after 36 holes, shot par on Saturday, with his 72 leaving him at 9-under 207. Smotherman (69) was joined at the top by Brent Grant (64).
Eagle does it
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Reigning tournament champion Steve Stricker made a long eagle putt on the par-5 18th hole at Greystone Golf & Country Club for a 7-under 65 and the third-round lead in the Regions Tradition, the first of five PGA Tour Champions majors.
Stricker, who won the Alabama major the last time it was held in 2019, moved a stroke ahead of Alex Cejka with the eagle that got him to 14-under 202. Cejka, who made the field as the first alternate Monday to secure his third start on the 50-and-older tour, bogeyed the 17th before two-putting for par to close out a 66.
Tied for third at 11 under were Robert Karlsson (64) and Dicky Pride (67), a resident of nearby Tuscaloosa playing courtesy of a sponsor exemption.