Phil Mickelson proves he can still mix it with the best by claiming two-shot lead at Wells Fargo Championship

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Phil Mickelson walks to the tee - SHUTTERSTOCK
Phil Mickelson walks to the tee - SHUTTERSTOCK

It sounds a far from convincing statement, but those Super Golf League disruptors from Saudi Arabia could just have as much as sense as money.

While eyebrows disappeared under visors when it was revealed this week that Phil Mickelson could be paid as much as $100 million per year to appear in the proposed breakaway circuit, the 50 year-old showed he can still mix it with the game’s best when shooting an extraordinary first-round 65 that handed the Senior Tour member a two-shot advantage in the Wells Fargo Championship.

This was Mickelson at his best and in this sort of form any golf fan would pay to watch him, regardless of the stage. On Wednesday, the five-time major winner had stretched credibility by claiming the rebels who did join the SGL would not be “money-grabbers” - as Rory McIlroy called them - but, in fact, would be “selfless’ because they would be tying themselves into a schedule the supporters would be thrilled to see.

In truth, Mickelson is more suited to making mouths drop as he rolls back the years while rolling in the putts, as he did at Quail Hollow on this memorable Thursday. Mickelson, who competes with the over-50 brigade such as Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer, is ranked 115th in the world and without a top 20 on the Tour proper in nine months. What was the difference here from his missed cut in Tampa last week?

“Just focus,” Mickelson said. “This course holds my attention. I've been doing some like, you know, some mental exercises and so forth just to try to get my concentration to elongate over five hours. That's been a real struggle for me because, physically, there's nothing holding me back from playing at a high level.

Mickelson’s nearest pursuers are fellow American Keegan Bradley and Korean Kyoung-Hoon Lee, with England’s Tommy Fleetwood on four-under. Rory McIlroy, in his first event since his missed cut at the Masters, could only manage a one-over 73 and now faces another fight to make the weekend. He is two back from Rickie Fowler, another whose targeting by the Saudis caused surprise.

Bogeys on the world No 111's final two holes hardly strengthened any conviction that he might be worth a $30m signing-on fee, yet in the midst of the most humbling slump of Fowler’s career so far, this one-under 71 was, in fact, a step forward for the 32 year-old. And afterwards he credited time spent viewing last month’s Masters alongside Tiger Woods as inspiration.

Fowler, without a top 10 in his last 27 events, failed to qualify for the Augusta major for the first time in 11 years and instead went over to his neighbour’s to watch the first round. “It was fun to be able to do that with Tiger.

“We were both in the same position... well, I guess not the same. Mine from not playing well and him being laid up [after breaking his right leg in a car accident]. But we were definitely both very disappointed we couldn't experience it.

“Tiger’s golf clubs are right there in the living room and he can stare at them all he wants. He's not lacking any fire in there right now. Tiger never has.”

It is fair to say that not everyone says similar about Fowler. In March, Sir Nick Faldo took a pop at the Californian’s plethora of endorsement commitments - “the good news is if he misses the Masters he can shoot another six commercials that week!” Faldo posted on Twitter - and although the Englishman later apologised and claimed he was only joking, many saw true words in his jest.

Fowler has attracted further criticism for expressing his interest in the SGL, despite Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s warning on Tuesday that the rebels face a lifetime ban.

“Yeah I think the information's good, knowing about what's going on,” he explained. “You don't necessarily want to just be sitting here talking about or not being able to answer certain things. It's definitely interesting. I think there's a lot that needs to happen for it to even move forward of any sort, but at the same time I think competition can be a good thing.”

Fowler believes it could come to pass. “It would definitely need at least a handful of guys to be going in that direction, or to commit or something,” he said. “But I don't know of anything like that right now. So we'll see. I think all of us will come out in a better place after all this is done.”