DUBLIN, Ohio – Rickie Fowler knew rain-softened Muirfield Village was giving up birdies, even if there was none on his card as he approached the turn Saturday with his lead dwindling.
He pounced with a shot that showed his age – 21 – isn’t the only thing that sets him apart.
From a distance in the ninth fairway that typically called for a pitching wedge – 125 yards, slightly downhill to a front pin just beyond the water – Fowler opted for a punch 9-iron that would keep the ball from spinning too much and possibly going into the water.
“I wasn’t going to throw a pitching wedge and have the ball spinning very much,” Fowler said. “It was like a cut-off 9, start the ball left, try to hit it down and had a little cut in there.”
It stopped 6 feet behind the hole for his first birdie, and he was on his way.
Unfazed by six hours of rain delays or the 62 that Ricky Barnes shot – playing with Tiger Woods, no less – Fowler completed another round without a bogey and shot 3-under 69 to build a three-shot lead over Barnes and Tim Petrovic.
Now, he is one round away from joining the recent youth movement on the PGA Tour.
“I’m hitting the ball well,” Fowler said. “I kept it out of trouble, and I knew opportunities were coming around. It was a matter of waiting for them.”
Fowler was at 16-under 200 and had the largest 54-hole lead at the Memorial since Woods led by six shots in 2000.
Patience doesn’t seem to fit with the trend toward youth. Fowler will try Sunday to become the third PGA Tour winner in the last six weeks at age 22 or under, joining Rory McIlroy, who won Quail Hollow two days before his 21st birthday, and Jason Day, who was 22 when he won the Byron Nelson Championship.
Experience might not be a factor in this case. The five players separated by five shots going into the final round have combined for one PGA Tour victory, by Petrovic in New Orleans in five years ago.
“I want to win against the best,” Fowler said. “That doesn’t change the way I play.”
The largest crowd at Muirfield Village followed Woods, and the cheers were loud and frequent. They just weren’t for him.
Barnes began his round my making a 40-foot birdie down the hill. Woods began his by walking to the hole as his birdie putt was about to drop, only to see it spin around the cup. Barnes holed out a 9-iron for eagle on No. 11 to reach 7 under for the day, and he kept right on going until he had the lowest round of his career, and the best score of the week.
“I think it probably got noticed a little bit more,” Barnes said. “Obviously, the cameras were probably already in our group, so they didn’t need to go anywhere. I’ll take a 62 anywhere, whether it’s with my buddies or a Saturday at the Memorial.”
For the first time since Woods returned to competition, he refused to speak to the media. “I’m done,” he said to a PGA Tour official before walking over a bridge toward the locker room, stopping to sign a few autographs at the top of a hill.
Woods had a 69, which included a double bogey on the 10th hole when his tee shot went 45 degrees to the right and out-of-bounds, much like his tee shot on the 14th hole of The Players Championship that went into a pond on the adjacent hole.
He was at 6-under 210, tied for 20th, well out of contention. A four-time winner at the Memorial, Woods has not been this far out of the lead since he finished 17 shots behind in 1998.
Phil Mickelson, in his third tournament with a chance to become No. 1 in the world by winning, could only manage a 70 on a relatively easy day for scoring. The greens were soft from the rain and soft skies, and there was no wind. He was at 8-under 208.
Mickelson also declined to speak to reporters.
Petrovic pulled within one shot late in the round until the 17th, when Petrovic missed the green left for a bogey and Fowler made a 20-footer for his final birdie of the round.
Petrovic, 43, graduated college the year Fowler was born. Age isn’t the only difference. He is tall and lanky with a smooth tempo. Fowler, patience with his game plan, looks to be in a hurry on the course – and to get his first win.
“I kind of look the other way when he hits,” Petrovic said. “He swings fast. He walks fast. He talks fast. I’ve got to kind of slow it down a little bit. My plan is to try to lull him to sleep over the course of two days. It was working for a while, but he woke up at the end.”
Justin Rose shot a 70 and was still only four shots behind. That was the deficit he faced at the turn, after he dumped his approach into the water and made bogey as Fowler manufactured his 9-iron with a splendid shot behind the cup.
Rose rallied, however, and was only one shot behind through 14 holes when he chopped up the par-5 15th and took bogey. Fowler reached the green in two, but missed a 3-foot birdie putt. That was about his only mistake of the day. Fowler has gone 52 holes without a bogey, the third-longest streak in Memorial history.
Despite his youth, he has been under this pressure before. Fowler was 20 last year and lost in a three-way playoff in his second PGA Tour start as a pro. At the Phoenix Open in February, he played in the final group and had a chance to win until failing to make birdie down the stretch and finishing one shot behind.