CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rickie Fowler is clearly feeling good vibes this week at the 99th PGA Championship.
In two days at Quail Hollow — site of Fowler’s first PGA Tour victory in 2012 — the 28-year-old has signed for rounds of 69-70. At 3-under 139, he’s on the first page of the leaderboard, five shots behind co-leaders Kevin Kisner and Hideki Matsuyama.
Playing alongside Rory McIlroy (2 over) and Jon Rahm (3 over) for Rounds 1 and 2, Fowler took a much different, calculated approach than the bomb and gouge of McIlroy and Rahm.
The first three holes of Friday — the trio started at the 10th — were a perfect example.
While McIlroy and Rahm opted for driver on each of the first three, Fowler dialed back with 3-wood, 3-wood, 2-iron. It was a brilliant game plan. With all the length at Quail Hollow, chances are the second shot on most holes will require a mid-to-long-iron anyway, so what advantage is truly gained with a driver?
"I'm not as long as Jon or Rory," Fowler said. "Go out and set your game plan in the practice rounds and figure out what you are going to do. The golf course has changed quite a bit since Monday, Tuesday and even Wednesday with how dry it's gotten and how much firmer the greens are, so just thinking how we want to play the golf course. And pars are good. There's going to be a handful of opportunities where you can get aggressive and make some birdies.”
Fowler’s only two birdies of the day came at the short, par-4 14th — he hit an iron off the tee to McIlroy and Rahm’s fairway woods — and the par-3 17th.
Things can go south in a hurry at Quail Hollow. Fowler learned that in Thursday’s opening round when he triple-bogeyed the par-4 fifth hole. Friday was far less adventurous for the fan favorite. He meticulously plotted his way around while McIlroy — and especially Rahm — had to work their way out of precarious situations.
“The biggest thing is not giving shots back,” said Fowler, who made his lone bogey Friday on No. 12. “So there are probably a couple of holes where they can turn the ball right to left better than I can with driver. I play the shorter driver which I predominantly hit a cut with. So with that there's some holes that I may play back with 3-wood. The biggest thing for me, I'm trying to get the ball in the fairway and take kind of trouble out of play and minimize the mistakes.”
That wasn’t McIlroy’s game plan. He narrowly escaped disaster on the par-5 10th hole, his first of the day. McIlroy was fine off the tee, but he fanned his second shot with a fairway wood so far right, it actually hit a cart path and rolled all the way down to the bottom of a hill.
McIlroy was in a spot you expect to see one of your weekend foursome buddies in, not a former world No. 1 and four-time major champion.
Incredibly, he hit a 1-in-500 recovery shot, skipping the ball along the cart path, over a greenside bunker and just through the green. He would salvage par, something he did a lot on Friday.
“I didn't expect it to be there,” said McIlroy of the cart path fiasco. “I knew it was a little right with the second shot but a little bit unlucky to get it going down the cart path. It was really the only option I had. It was ... I had a 6-iron. I dropped it in a pretty bad lie, so I couldn't carry it over the cart path. So hit a 6-iron. Just said, ‘OK, I'll bounce it up the cart path and see where this goes.’
“Luckily it got out of the bunker and on to the other side,” he said. “That could have been a 6 or a 7 quite easily. So to actually get away with a 5, I actually felt pretty good about myself going to the next tee.”
After an impressive 1-under 70 on Thursday, Rahm had a wild round of 4-over 75 on Friday that included five bogeys. Erratic off the tee and unable to buy a putt, Rahm hit a stretch on his first nine where he made four bogeys in a six-hole stretch.
Back to Fowler.
He’s on a quest this week to remove his name from a list of answers to one of golf’s most frequently asked questions: Who is the best player without a major?
Fowler has seven Top 10 finishes in majors, including as a runner-up at both the 2014 U.S. Open and Open Championship. His best finish in a PGA Championship was a T3 in 2014 at Valhalla.
Is this the week he breaks through? On the same course where he collected his maiden PGA Tour win five years ago?
“It's there,” Fowler said, commenting on the chance of shooting a score like Kisner’s twin 67s (Matsuyama would shoot a tournament-best 64 later in the day). “Like I said, to be able to hit your lines and hit your numbers going into greens, it's there. There's birdies. I made six yesterday. I didn't make as many today. There's opportunities to do it. You have got to minimize the amount of mistakes. Kis has done a great job of that the first two days. We're only halfway. Yeah, you want to get off to a good start and be in a good position which he has done and I have done as well. We'll go battle it out this weekend.”