LAS VEGAS — Rory McIlroy was trying to illustrate how deep the talent pool is on the PGA Tour by sharing a story about how impressed he was with Keith Mitchell the first time they played together.
The Chattanooga native is providing McIlroy and everyone else with plenty more fodder through two rounds of the CJ Cup at Summit.
One day after matching his career low with a 62, Mitchell shot an 8-under-par 64 on Friday, and the 29-year-old former Baylor School and University of Georgia standout held a five-shot shot lead going into the weekend at the Summit Club.
Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth had eight birdies and an eagle to counter a few soft bogeys for a 65 and was at 13 under, tied for second with Harry Higgs (67), Seonghyeon Kim (63) — one of eight South Korean players who will be in the second stage of qualifying next week for the second-tier Korn Ferry Tour — and Australia's Adam Scott (63), the 2013 Masters champion who had two eagles in his last five holes Friday and played his last seven in 8 under.
Rickie Fowler shot a second straight 66 and was tied for sixth with England's Tyrell Hatton (65) at 12 under.
Mitchell was at 18-under 126, breaking by five shots his best 36-hole score on tour.
"I spent a lot of time in the last few days leading up to this tournament working hard on my game, and it's showing," said Mitchell, whose lone PGA Tour victory was at the Honda Classic in March 2019. "I'm very thankful for that. Just shows you that hard work pays off as long as you're doing the right things."
A week after missing the cut at nearby TPC Summerlin, not much has gone wrong for Mitchell in the desert.
One of the few instances came Friday when he was between clubs on No. 10 and had to scramble for par. That indecision carried over to the tee on the par-3 11th, where his worst swing of the day led to his lone bogey. He answered with three birdies the rest of the way to widen his lead.
"If I'm sitting here saying I'm 18 under with only two bad swings, I'm going to take it every time," Mitchell said.
Mitchell is one of four Baylor graduates currently on the PGA Tour, but he and Harris English were the only ones in the quartet who made the exclusive 78-man field of an event that is normally played in South Korea but was moved to Las Vegas for the second straight year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
There is no cut for the tournament, and Mitchell was 19 shots ahead of last place. English — like Mitchell, he also played at Georgia — was tied for 63rd at 3 under, shooting a 68 that was five strokes better than his opening round, when 25 players shot 67 or lower and the average score was 68.95.
Scores were even lower for most players Friday. That wasn't the case for Robert Streb, who led Thursday after firing a 61 but was six shots behind when he started his second round, then played 11 shots worse with a 72.
Highlights were abundant. Mexico's Abraham Ancer made an albatross by holing out from the fairway on the par-5 14th with a shot that rolled onto the green and broke some 30 feet to the left and right into the cup.
Dustin Johnson nearly had one on the par-5 third. His second shot banged into the middle of the spin and settled a few inches away. The world's No. 2 player started with a 74, shot a 66 and actually lost ground. He was 14 shots behind.
Spieth hit a 3-wood shot so pure, he told his caddie as the ball was in flight that it was a shot he couldn't have hit last year when he was struggling with his game. That led to an eagle on the par-5 sixth, and while he's still five back, he is in range.
"Everybody would have signed for 18 through two rounds," Spieth said. "I think the hardest part is regrouping and almost feeling like you start fresh to put your foot on the gas pedal versus tapping the brakes."
Spieth would rather be five shots ahead, though he doesn't mind being behind by that much in one respect.
"That will help me keep the foot on the gas pedal," he said.
That's the only way to fly around the Summit, which doesn't provide too much stress as long as shots are kept in the grass instead of the desert.
McIlroy brought up Mitchell at the start of the week when the topic turned to how hard it is to win on the PGA Tour. The four-time major champion from Northern Ireland thought back to the Wells Fargo Championship in May, when he played the final round with Mitchell, trailing by two shots at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.
McIlroy closed with a 68 to win by a stroke over Ancer, while Mitchell wound up another stroke back and tied for third with Norway's Viktor Hovland — who is now in the big group tied for eighth at 11 under through 36 holes at the CJ Cup. Still, the impression Mitchell made on McIlroy remained.
"He came out and he hits it in the left bunker on 1, hits an unbelievable 7-iron to like 10 feet and holes the putt," McIlroy said. "People wouldn't maybe pick a Keith Mitchell to win a tournament at the start of the week, but you play with him in a final round on a Sunday, he stopped me in my tracks. I was like, 'He is a hell of a player.'"
"People don't realize ... I mean, you could say that about 100 guys out there," McIlroy said. "That's the thing. You turn up to a PGA Tour event, you feel like three-quarters of the field have a chance to win."
The best chance currently belongs to Mitchell, who knows a thing or two about depth on the tour. Anyone can go low at any minute, especially in conditions like this.
England's Ian Poulter played with Mitchell and had rounds of 66-67. He was seven behind.
"We're trying to birdie every hole on the golf course, and you can't be any more aggressive than that," Poulter said. "It's just the first two rounds that Keith has played is pretty impressive. Eighteen under for two days is some good golf."