QUAIL HOLLOW should echo with European thunder this weekend as Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood go hammer and tongs for a Wells Fargo Championship victory that would validate massive career changes both have made this year.
McIlroy, 24 today, and Westwood, playing his first tournament as a 40-year-old, were locked together on six-under-par and in close contention after the second round.
Phil Mickelson gave a short-game master class as he swept to the top of the leaderboard on nine-under-par, especially during yesterday's 67, which left him two ahead of Americans Nick Watney, George McNeill and Aussie Scott Gardiner in the clubhouse.
The Californian clearly has found it easier this week to keep his ball on soft fairways, but he's been truly imperious playing into receptive greens and near-infallible with the putter, sinking all 31 of his putts inside 10 feet on Quail Hollow's badly scarred greens.
Yet for all of Mickelson's genius, electricity has crackled between McIlroy and Westwood since they were warm(ish) friends and even hotter rivals in Chubby Chandler's ISM stable.
Some believe the fire was set when Westwood crushed McIlroy with majestic golf during their first full-blooded confrontation at the climax to the 2009 Race to Dubai, then boasted he'd bullied his young and naive Irish rival.
Still, a one-liner from McIlroy to Westwood at Quail Hollow in 2010, moments after the precocious youngster had shot a staggering 62 to clinch his first PGA Tour victory, did little to foster detente.
Westwood and caddie Billy Foster hung around for some time that afternoon to congratulate the Ulsterman and, as the Englishman heartily shook the youngster's hand, McIlroy famously quipped: "Now that's how you finish off a tournament!"
Given the way in which Westwood had led into the final round of the previous month's Masters, then let Mickelson slip past him for victory, those words really must have stung.
Both men have reached the top of the world in recent years but McIlroy has two Major titles, while Westwood would give almost anything just for one.
This lifelong quest led the in Worksop man to uproot his young family last winter and move to Florida. Yet all the warm-weather work he was able to do on his short game in the new year has not yet yielded desired results.
If victory this weekend would offer firm endorsement to Westwood, it'd be even more precious to McIlroy after a fraught, fruitless and frustrating first four months as the $20m-per-annum face of Nike golf.
On Thursday, McIlroy once again looked like the player who set the world afire last autumn as he repeatedly blasted 300-plus yard drives down the fairways. Indeed, had his finishing had been a tad sharper, he'd have scored better than 67.
The Holywood native stalled early on yesterday in cold, blustery conditions. He said he struggled initially with the faster pace of the greens, evidenced by a three-putt from inside 16 feet at 10.
In all, McIlroy had 32 putts but still played sublimely on his homeward half, hitting all nine greens in regulation and bagging three birdies for a 71.
Westwood was more impressive on the greens as he compiled a fine second-round 68, despite a niggling chest infection. Forget his three-stab from 18 feet for bogey at 12, his third, the Englishman's flat iron oozed confidence and, in this form, he's dangerous.
Yet McIlroy's sensational victory in 2010 and his defeat only in sudden-death to Rickie Fowler 12 months ago suggest he can not only eclipse Westwood this weekend but maybe even show Mickelson who's the real master of Quail Hollow.
Padraig Harrington endured a nightmarish first outing with the belly putter as he followed Thursday's abject 80 with 75 to wallow at the foot of the field on 11-over.
Add yesterday's 34 putts to the 32 he had in the first round and there's reason to suggest the Dubliner might consider imposing a personal 'anchoring' ban!
Wells Fargo Championship,
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