It wasn’t that long ago that opponents would welcome Rickie Fowler being in or near the lead going into the final round of a PGA Tour event.
Fowler was seemingly more flash than substance, as he had the endorsements but went winless in his first two years on tour in 2010-11 with three runner-up finishes, and had just the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship title over the next three years.
Through the 2014 season his ledger was one win, seven runner-up finishes. His lack of respect among his peers was revealed when he and Ian Poulter were voted the most overrated players on tour in an anonymous player poll.
No one wants to see Fowler atop a leaderboard any longer, as the slightly-built golfer’s name now carries a lot more weight.
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Fowler won The Players Championship in a playoff with a furious rally, added titles at the Deutsche Bank Championship in September and Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January, and has risen to No. 5 in the world rankings.
He is bidding for his second Wells Fargo title Sunday after shooting a 4-under-par 68 Saturday in the third round at Quail Hollow Club to take a one-stroke lead over Roberto Castro at 9-under 207 into the final round.
“From about a year ago to two years ago to where I’m at right now, whether it’s being in the final group or having a chance to win, being in contention, it’s completely different,” Fowler said. “You know, it was I would say before maybe not the complete belief or knowledge of knowing what to do and how to win to get the job done, but now it’s fun to go out there and go take care of business.”
You know, it was I would say before maybe not the complete belief or knowledge of knowing what to do and how to win to get the job done, but now it's fun to go out there and go take care of business.
Englishman Justin Rose, the 10th-ranked player in the world, is just two shots back along with James Hahn following a 69 Saturday, and Scott Langley and 36-hole leader Andrew Loupe are tied for fifth and three shots back at 6-under 210.
The win at Quail Hollow Club in 2012 came in Fowler’s 71st PGA Tour event, and he shot a final-round 69 before defeating Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points on the first hole a playoff with a wedge to 5 feet on the 18th hole.
“The biggest thing was just getting the monkey off my back and getting the first win on the PGA Tour,” Fowler said. “I was in contention but I kind of just was able to hold on and get myself into the playoff, and obviously made some great swings when I needed to in the playoff there, which helped me when it came down to it.
“The Players is still probably the biggest one for me as far as what it’s done confidence-wise. But if I didn’t have the win here going into The Players, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. So it’s just been a building process.”
Fowler made three consecutive birdies twice in his round Saturday, making them on holes 8-10 and again on holes 14-16. He capped his first trio of birdies with a 45-yard pitch to 9 feet after a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cart had to be moved out of his way well to the right of the green.
He began his second run by driving the green on the 352-yard par-4 14th hole and two-putting from 45 feet, then he hit a 70-foot chip to 3 feet on the par-5 15th and rolled in a 27-foot putt following a 340-yard drive on the par-4 16th hole.
He bogeyed the 11th and 13th holes after missing the 11th green and three-putting from 37 feet on 13.
“It was nice to drive it well. That’s going to be a positive going into [Sunday],” Fowler said. “And I’ve continued to swing it better and better as the tournament has gone on. It wasn’t very good the first two days and nice to finally get into a little bit of a rhythm out there today and hopefully it’s even better tomorrow.”
Fowler began the third round three shots behind Loupe and in a six-way tie for fifth.
“The main thing was just to go out and make sure I was in position to win tomorrow,” Fowler said. “I didn’t want to take myself out of the tournament. So whether it was out in front by a few shots or tied for the lead or a shot or two back, I just didn’t want to be out of position. I’m comfortable playing whether it’s out front, behind, whatever it may be. I’ve won from all areas now.”
A course that played soft and long early in the week has been drying out, and the wind was blowing hard enough Saturday to be a factor. Quail Hollow’s greens are extremely quick and getting firmer and slicker by the day. Several players putted off greens Saturday, but tournament officials aren’t worried about losing the greens because they’re being replaced through a renovation project that begins Monday.
“I’m looking forward to them drying out and firming up even more tomorrow,” Fowler said. “You’re going to have to be in control of your golf ball, especially out of the fairway. You’re not going to be able to play this golf course out of the rough tomorrow.”
Prior to a tie for 20th in last week’s weather-shortened Zurich Classic of New Orleans that concluded Monday, Fowler missed the cut at the Masters with rounds of 80 and 73, then went on a much-publicized guys’ trip with Jordan Spieth and two other players to Bakers Bay in the Bahamas.
He partially credits that trip for his play this week.
“It was having some time away just from almost like the real world in a way,” Fowler said. “… I do that once or twice a year when I get two-week breaks, and that’s why I take two-week breaks is actually to get some time away to relax and reset. You try and play at a high level continuously throughout the year, and it definitely wears on you and it can become tough. [It helps] if you can split it up a bit and get the times where you just go have fun with your friends.”
While Fowler is seeking his fourth PGA Tour title, Castro remains in search of his first in his 116th start. His best finish is a solo second in the 2013 Quicken Loans National.
He is an alternate in next week’s Players Championship and will likely only get into the tournament with a win Sunday. Castro, who shot a 71 Saturday, has had some success at Quail Hollow with a tie for eighth in 2014 among his three previous starts.
He held at least a share of the lead for much of the third round but bogeyed the 18th hole to fall a stroke behind Fowler, with whom he’ll play in the final twosome.
If you want to win a tournament out here and really win a marquee event like this one, you're going to have to grab your hat and play with one of the top five players in the world probably the final round.
“If you want to win a tournament out here and really win a marquee event like this one, you’re going to have to grab your hat and play with one of the top five players in the world probably the final round,” Castro said. “So that’s what I’ve got tomorrow so I’m excited about it.”