Rickie Fowler is doing all he can to make amends for his near misses in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and make a statement in the process, with an exclamation point.
Fowler, trying to post a wire-to-wire victory, will take a four-shot lead over Matt Kuchar into Sunday’s final round after carding a 64 on Saturday. That left him at 20-under 193.
Golf fans should be in for a treat on Super Bowl Sunday with Fowler, Kuchar and Justin Thomas doing battle in the final group.
“It’s been nice to have some things click on the swing,” said Fowler, who is using a new driver, new putter and new ball model this week. “Nothing’s standing out super special, just playing solid golf, so I’m looking forward to (Sunday).
“We’ve got 18 holes left and a lot of work, but we’re in a good spot.”
Since TPC Scottsdale underwent an extensive renovation in 2014, which made the layout more difficult, the lowest winning score was last year’s 18-under 266 by Gary Woodland.
If Fowler can keep the pace he has set the first three rounds, he would easily eclipse that mark but final rounds have not always been kind to him here and he has a host of formidable challengers right behind.
Kuchar fired a bogey-free round of 65 to stay within four shots of Fowler and Justin Thomas was five shots back after a 68. Brandon Grace and Byeong Hun An were seven shots behind and Bubba Watson and Woodland trailed by eight.
“Another good day, to shoot 6-under par with some tough hole locations,” Kuchar said. “The course is playing fantastic. It’s such a great test of golf. If you’re playing well, you can make some birdies and if you’re not, you’re going to get in trouble.”
Thomas, who shared the lead with Fowler after the first round, struggled on the front nine, shooting 1-over, but rolled in four birdies on the back to stay within striking distance.
“I really didn’t play very well today,” Thomas said. “I drove the ball poorly, didn’t hit my irons very well. There’s a good chance it might take something special for me (to catch Fowler) but I like the fact that at least I got my way into that final group and I’m going to know what he’s doing.”
Fowler made eight birdies and one bogey and got off to a brilliant start Saturday. His birdie on the first hole gave him five in a row after making four straight to end the third round. He also birdied the third, fifth and sixth holes to quickly open a five-shot lead and never let up. Included in that stretch were birdie putts from 30 and 37 feet. Thomas was particularly impressed with how well Fowler is driving the ball.
“Everything is coming together and working well, where if I do miss a shot, I’m able to get the ball up and down, so it’s been kind of fun and exciting,” Fowler said. “I’m having a good time and it’s fun when you get to impress your buddies.’’
Kuchar, who has won twice already this season, kept the pressure on with a 65 in his bogey-free round that included birdies on the 12th, 13th and 15th holes, but he has seen up close how well Fowler is playing and knows he faces a tall task.
“I played with Rickie the first two days,” said Kuchar, who has three top-10s in this event. “He’s playing great golf. Certainly he’s going to be the player to beat, especially if he keeps on the form he’s on. But I feel my form’s pretty good as well.”
Fowler isn’t ready to chalk up a victory just yet, considering his final-round history here. He lost by one shot in 2010 and lost in a playoff in 2016 after leading by two shots with two holes to play. Last year, he led by one entering the final round but a 73 dropped him into a tie for 11th.
Matching the course record of 28-under 256, carded by Phil Mickelson and Mark Calcavecchia before the renovation, would require Fowler to shoot the week’s best round of 63.
That would be a tall order and conditions could get much tougher with a forecast calling for rain Sunday morning, although a light rain also could produce lower scores with softer greens.
Fowler’s critics contend that he hasn’t shown the ability to close the deal under pressure but Thomas, who is one of his closest friends, wholeheartedly disagrees with that assessment.
“The thing about Rick is he doesn’t listen to that,” Thomas said. “That’s why he probably has the best demeanor on tour (and) that’s why he continues to get himself in contention in the biggest tournaments.
“That’s one thing I never worry about with Rick. He’s going to be fine and no matter what happens he’s always going to have a great attitude and that’s something I really admire a lot about him.”
Considering his history in this event and the support he has from family and friends here, it’s not surprising that, outside of major championships, Fowler said this is one of the two events he would most like to win. The Farmers Insurance Open, near his hometown, is the other.
“It would be awesome,” Fowler said. “It’s been a long time coming. I obviously want to win here. This is a special place. The Thunderbirds have been amazing to me and the fans are so awesome and supportive.
“You would like to (win) every week, but this is definitely very high up on the list. Another good, solid 18 holes and we’ll be in the right spot.”