HOYLAKE, England – Rickie Fowler was cruising along. He birdied seven of the first 12 holes Saturday at Royal Liverpool. He went from six strokes behind starting the Open Championship third round to climbing into a tie for first with Rory McIlroy through 13 holes.
But then, in the last 75 minutes or so, Fowler made three bad swings that led to three bogeys and McIlroy found a different gear – top gear – and surged to a six-shot advantage thanks to two eagle 3s and a birdie.
We’ve seen it before, when McIlroy won a pair of major championships by eight strokes apiece in 2011-12. We just haven’t seen it lately from golf’s only rare separation player besides Tiger Woods in recent years. Until know. McIlroy’s power punch is dormant no more.
“He always has that firepower to make things happen,” Fowler said of the friend he met at the 2007 Walker Cup. “You just never know when it’s coming.”
That dramatic change of events left Fowler looking ahead and behind. He tied for fifth at the Masters and for second at the U.S. Open. At the latter, he also landed in the final twosome Sunday. Now he’s looking for more at the season’s third major. Chasing down McIlroy hardly will be easy, but he hopes to draw on and replicate Saturday’s hot start.
“Maybe I can put a little pressure on him,” Fowler said after finishing at 10-under-par 69-69-68–206. “Unfortunately I did make those rough swings coming in. But I’ve been swinging great. I’m definitely looking forward to getting out there tomorrow and see if I can put the same start on Rory as I did today.”
Though they’re separated by a half dozen strokes, the two 25-year-olds comprise a juicy final pairing. McIlroy is a former No. 1 on the verge of the third leg of the career Grand Slam. The colorfully clad Fowler is something of a teen idol, his bright clothing emulated by young boys hither and yon. The competitive game’s future is in good hands, considering the likes of them and Jordan Spieth.
“It was just a matter of time before the two of us found a way to sneak into a final group together,” Fowler said.
Fowler lives in Jupiter, Fla., and McIlroy has a mansion there. They’re traveled together some between tournaments. But the friendship will be put aside for about four hours Sunday.
“We both want to beat up on each other as bad as possible,” Fowler said.
Fowler finally is equipped to counterpunch consistently. Before this year, he was more hat than cattle, as they say in Texas. But renowned instructor Butch Harmon, which whom Fowler hooked up full-time in November, has helped elevate him to a significantly higher level this year. Now he’s a major contender, much more than marketing magnet with kids.
What a difference a year makes. Fowler was downtrodden after missing the cut at the 2013 Open at Muirfield.
“I was probably at a confidence low as far as looking at my whole game,” Fowler said of last summer. “Week to week maybe there was one thing that would stand out and I’d be able to go with that. But right now I’m definitely able to come in the majors and go into each week believing in my game and believing in what I’m working on with Butch. That gives me so much confidence.”
That has translated to comfort and good results at this year’s majors.
“It’s not even close to the past few years,” said Fowler, whose lone PGA Tour victory came at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship. “It doesn’t feel like a big stage. It feels like I’m supposed to be here.”
It has helped that Fowler has played well the week before each of the three 2014 majors. He has also been aided by hanging out and playing Tuesday practice rounds with Phil Mickelson. “He’s kind of been like, hate to say it, but like a dad,” Fowler said of Mickelson.
Then there’s Harmon’s influence on swing motion. Mickelson, not easy to impress, recently said that Fowler’s iron play has improved significantly. Fowler knows why.
“I’m definitely delivering the club properly,” he said. “My swing is a lot more efficient than it’s ever been. It’s less effort. It’s more based on body rotation than timing and hands.”
Strong ballstriking was on display early and often Saturday. Of his seven birdies on the opening 12 holes, three came from 4-6 feet, two from 15 and a pair from 30. After that, though, he dropped shots – driving into high rough at 14 and into a pot bunker at 15 and tugging a 5-iron approach into high rough at 17.
“Bad swings happen and it’s just unfortunate I kind of strung a few of those together and it cost me a couple of shots coming in,” he said.
But then he changed gears and talked about the good swings starting out. And how they might help him Sunday. To win, he’ll need his best stuff, as well as a little help from a friend.