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When in rains, it pours

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Perhaps a tournament that has enjoyed quite a glorious existence for the past 10 years is simply being tested. Bad greens. Unseasonably cool temperatures. No Tiger Woods.

And now the possibility of a weather-shortened, 54-hole event.

Nobody wanted to talk about that Saturday evening, but Phil Mickelson wasn't discounting the possibility as he staggered through the final holes at Quail Hollow Golf Club, having to knock in a testy 7-footer for par at the 18th hole that tied him atop the leaderboard with Nick Watney.

If the weather forecast is as poor as advertised, Mickelson's putt could conceivably put him in a playoff to determine the winner of the Wells Fargo Championship.

"I was grinding it out coming down the stretch because there is a high likelihood that we don't play tomorrow,'' said Mickelson, who finished with a 1-over-par 73 and is tied at 208, 8 under par, with Watney, a stroke ahead of George McNeill. "And it reminds me of when we had a rainout at BellSouth in Atlanta years ago, and they just made a par 3 somewhat playable.

"We went out and had a playoff, and I was fortunate enough to win. I thought there was a good chance we might have that scenario again if the weather comes in like it's supposed to [late Saturday] and the forecast is as bad on Monday.''

And that would only be fitting for a tournament that has typically been considered among the best on the PGA Tour. From the venue, to the pro-am, to the hospitality, to its place on the schedule, players typically rave about Quail Hollow.

But for tournament organizers, it's been one crisis after another in 2013. A cool spring and some agronomical issues led to two greens having to be re-sodded and the rest in poor condition, with at least four of them not worthy of your most average municipal course.

Last week, somewhat surprisingly, word came that Woods would not be playing. At least nine other players who had committed to the tournament withdrew, with a handful citing the poor condition of the greens. And then the weather has been unusually cold.

And now it's supposed to rain through Monday.

PGA Tour regulations require that every attempt be made to play 72 holes.

But several factors could make that difficult. First, the expected overnight rain. Sunday tee times have been moved up to 6:45 a.m. off the first and 10th tee with Mickelson, Watney and McNeil headed out at 8:46 a.m. The idea is to get the round completed, and that's as far as PGA Tour vice president of competition Mark Russell really wanted to go.

"We're going to do everything we can to get it finished,'' Russell said. "We'll try to play as much golf as possible.''

But if less than half the field is able to complete its round, the tour could revert to the 54-hole scores -- in which case Mickelson and Watney would have a playoff. If more than half are able to finish, then the round must be completed, which means a Monday finish. Or a Tuesday finish.

The greens are in poor enough shape, however, that they might not be playable if sufficient rain falls. And then there is the matter of the Players Championship, the PGA Tour's signature event, which begins on Thursday at the TPC Sawgrass. No way the tour wants another tournament coming close to infringing.

Mickelson did his best to make things interesting. He had gotten to 11-under through 10 holes and at one point had a two-shot lead. And after a birdie at the 14th, he still led.

That's when Lefty made a mistake. He made a questionable decision by attempting to play a 3-wood second shot from a poor position to the right of the 15th fairway. Instead of the ball cutting on the par-5 hole, it sailed out of bounds, leading to a double bogey.

The safe, easy play would have been to knock something into the fairway and play a third shot to the green. Mickelson never considered it.

"The second shot should not have been a problem,'' he said. "I hit a 3-wood and it shot straight, which I was not expecting, and it went out of bounds. That was a big mistake.''

He then compounded it by hooking an 8-iron approach into the gallery and hitting a woman on the head. "She was pretty cool about it, but boy, it didn't look good,'' Mickelson said of the spectator who needed medical attention. "I felt terrible about that.''

Asked when he last hit a spectator, Mickelson quipped, "Oh, yesterday ... I don't know. It happens a lot.''

It made for an interesting day for Australian Scott Gardiner, a 37-year-old rookie who found himself in the final pairing with Mickelson.

"It was a great experience,'' said Gardiner, who shot 76. "He's a class act. His fans are awesome. It was like playing at a football game. They really get you going. It was great.''

As for Mickelson's exploits, Gardiner said, "The best players in the world are supremely confident and they take on shots. They have the ability to do that. And in order to win tournaments, that's what you have to do.''

And yet, it was a comedy of errors at the end. Watney shanked his tee shot at the par-3 17th, leading to a double-bogey that dropped him into a tie with Mickelson. "A bit of anger, and definitely some embarrassment,'' Watney said. "I don't know what happened, to be honest. I was fighting my swing, but I haven't done that for a very long time. It was a bit unsettling.'' And McNeill bogeyed the final hole to fall out of the lead.

The leaders' difficulties let a lot of people back into the tournament, including Rory McIlroy, who seemingly couldn't buy a putt, missing six inside of seven feet. He shot 73 and finds himself only three strokes back, but in a tie for 10th.

"I think they may have given me a little bit of a birthday present right there,'' said McIlroy, who turned 24 on Saturday. "I'm only three back heading into tomorrow, and that's as good as I could ask for.''

Well, he now needs to ask for a little more. In order to win the tournament Sunday, McIlroy and others need the weather to cooperate just long enough to get 72 holes completed.

And the way this week has gone, nothing is assured.