Fowler closing in on Kodak Challenge title

Rickie Fowler hits on the ninth hole during the first round of the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Rickie Fowler hits on the ninth hole during the first round of the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

LAS VEGAS – So, Rickie Fowler, you’ve just two-putted for birdie from 33 feet. What are you going to do?

“I’m going to Disney,” Fowler said from beneath an electric green hat while walking in green golf shoes.

OK, so we’re making that quote up (but we’re telling the truth about the green hat and green shoes; just don’t laugh, because the kid wears ‘em well and can get away with it). Here’s a guess, though: had we asked Fowler about that birdie at TPC Summerlin’s 531-yard, par 5 16th, he would have said something to that effect.

After all, Fowler’s birdie did more than help him shoot a first-round 3 under 68 to get off to a solid start in the the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. That’s surely nice, but heck, it’s a mere $774,000 prize if he were to win. More eye-opening is the $1 million prize at stake, which the birdie at 16 may help with.

“A million bucks,” Fowler said, “is definitely something to get you thinking about.”

So much so that Fowler could find himself at Disney World for the final PGA Tour stop of the year, the Children’s Miracle Network Classic (Nov. 11-14). It hadn’t figured to be on his schedule, but given the birdie at TPC Summerlin’s 16th, Fowler is very much in the hunt to win something called the Kodak Challenge. Yawn? Doesn’t move you quite like a green jacket or a claret jug? Well, consider that winning the Kodak Challenge brings with it a $1 million prize.

Ah, yes, now it’s got your attention.

Certainly, players have taken note, though Fowler insists he stood on the 16th tee and wasn’t focused on the Kodak Challenge. It was his seventh hole of the day, he was already 3-under and looking to go even deeper, since what we have going on out here is a good, old-fashioned birdie-fest.

“It’s just another hole,” Fowler said.

But once he made birdie? Fowler’s smile was as bright as his green hat, green shoes, and green belt.

“Got the 4 today. We’re going to try to go out and make 3 (next).”

For 30 PGA Tour tournaments, Kodak chooses one hole and for the season a running tally is kept of players’ best scores. When the 30th and final hole is played in three weeks, the par 4 17th at Disney’s Magnolia Course, a winner will be declared and Fowler would very much like to be that man.

He’s got a great shot, too. That’s because Fowler entered the week tied with Troy Merritt at 15 under. When Merritt came along later in the day and posted a stunning bogey, it meant Fowler had earned the advantage in this competition. He is now assured of being at least 16 under. Tim Petrovic made birdie and is assured of being at least 15 under, while Merritt will have another chance today (and maybe Saturday and Sunday) to improve upon his 15 under score.

Yes, things could change in the next few days, but for now Fowler is leaning toward a Disney appearance to improve his chances for that $1m.

“I depends a little bit on what others do,” Fowler said. “But if I’m tied going into Disney, I will probably go.”

And if he’s one behind?

“That’s where the thinking comes into play,” he said.

Being incorporated into Fowler’s decision is his travel schedule, which is busy, to say the least. He’ll leave right from Las Vegas to Malaysia to play in the debut of the CIMB Asia Pacific Classic, the PGA Tour’s first-ever co-sanctioned tournament in Asia.

The week after the tournament in Malaysia, the world’s best will gather in Shanghai for the HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship. Currently not qualified, Fowler could get in off his world ranking or if he were to win this week.

Now, going Vegas to Malaysia to China to Disney is a four-week grind that will be good for the wallet, world rankings point, and frequent flyer account – but what’s the body and mind going to fee like?

Fowler smiled. Hey, he’s just 21, remember?

“I’m not trying to worry about it too much,” he said, though he conceded that if he were to not qualify for China, it would enhance the possibility of going to Disney.

Now when Fowler embarked upon his rookie season, chances are he thought of making cuts, getting into contention, being firmly inside of the top 125, and getting into the major championships. Winning $1 million in a competition such as the Kodak Challenge? Likely it didn’t make the radar. But the fact that he’s in position for such a prize is yet another indication that it’s been quite a season for the flashy California kid via Oklahoma State.

It includes the emotional high he’s still on for the way his Ryder Cup ended – four consecutive birdies to tie his match with Edoardo Molinari. “It gave us a chance,” Fowler said. “It was pretty cool to be put in that situation and to make my own memory.”

Will Disney provide the stage for another memory? Stay tuned, but given the way 2010 has played out for Fowler, don’t be surprised.

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