Charles Schwab Challenge

Colonial Country Club

PGA Tour

Ahead of next major, it's two of world's best in Rory and Xander dueling at Quail Hollow

May 11, 2024

Xander Schauffele shakes hands with Rory McIlroy after they finished the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

Andrew Redington

If you could get the most creative minds at the PGA Tour and CBS to script how things would go on an ideal Saturday at the Wells Fargo Championship, they might have drawn up exactly what happened in real life at Quail Hollow: Rory McIlroy digging into Xander Schauffele's four-shot lead, tightening things up at the top while the lurkers faded, and setting up what looks like a mano-a-mano Sunday showdown at the year's sixth signature event.

The only one this result might not appeal to is Schauffele himself. His season has been excellent on one hand, and a tale of "almosts" on the other. Seven top-10s in 11 events speaks to his terrific form, but a few great chances to win have come up begging, including a Sunday stumble at the Players Championship when Scottie Scheffler charged from behind to add yet another trophy to his growing collection.

At Quail Hollow, after establishing a four-shot lead with a 64-67 start, Schauffele surely hoped to come out with another spectacular Saturday and take a little stress off for the final round. But he stayed somewhat in neutral, converting just two birdies en route to a 70. It was enough to keep him in the lead at 12 under ... barely.

If he wants to notch his first victory since 2022, he'll have to do it the hard way, because Rory McIlroy, who has won three times at Quail Hollow in his career, including his first-ever PGA Tour victory in 2010, seized the opportunity with a bogey-free 67. That propelled him to 11 under, and though he remains in second place for the second straight day, this time he'll be hot on Schauffele's tail.

And though stranger things have happened in golf, it seems likely that one of the two will come through in the end. Sungjae Im, who had a wild finish to his round, holds solo third a full four shots behind, and after him it's Sepp Straka at seven under, Jason Day at five under, and a pack of five a shot behind Day. It would take a monumental effort or a legendary two-man collapse for any of them to chase down both leaders.

McIlroy is on the heels of a busy week off the course, with his effort to rejoin the PGA Tour Policy Board getting shot down just before he was added to a sub-committee that will be negotiating with PIF in ongoing merger talks. In Charlotte, though, he was focused on his game, and his driving in particular was spectacular on Saturday.

"I would say that's a direct result of some of the feelings I got in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago," McIlroy said of teaming up with Shane Lowry to win the Zurich Classic. "It's more just me committing to most of the time hitting that little cut that I've been hitting off the tee ... the more confidence I get and then the more I want to just keep hitting it."

And keep hitting it he did, like this gem on 16 that went a full 358 yards and set up a par on one of the hardest holes on the course:

In his post-round remarks, Schauffele understood that he'd invited Sunday drama into his life, blaming "sleepy wedges" for making life tough even from nice spots on the fairway.

"I'm going to have to earn it tomorrow," he said. "I've got Rory breathing down my neck. I'll look at the leaderboard here shortly, but yeah, I think if I strike the ball the way I did today off the tee and just a little more focus coming into the greens, picking the spots and then going through my process a little better, should be in good shape."

Despite some occasionally sloppy play, though, Schauffele scrambled brilliantly, staving off total disaster:

That clever work from trouble continued right to 18, when he went up and down for par from a tough spot behind the green to maintain his slim lead over McIlroy.

In the end, it leaves us with a Sunday duel between two of the most compelling personalities on the PGA Tour, and while there's never a bad time for that kind of drama, the week before the year's second major feels like a perfect time for a signature appetizer.