ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) – Rickie Fowler is more than just a brand.
He showed that a year ago with top-five finishes at all four majors. He shook off the label of underachiever with a dazzling victory at The Players Championship. Then, just last weekend, he ripped up the links to win the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
No wonder Fowler keeps getting thrown into the mix when people discuss the budding rivalry between Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
"We've already got the big two," said no less an authority than Nick Faldo, a six-time major champion. "If you want, put Rickie in there as well."
High praise, indeed.
Yet, there's still a nagging sense that Fowler needs a bit more substance to go with all the hype. Six years after he arrived on the PGA Tour with a headful of unruly hair and a big endorsement deal, he has yet to capture a truly signature win, the sort of triumph that would stamp him as a full-fledged rival to his fellow 20-somethings.
"A good start would be to become a major champion," Fowler said Tuesday, a blunt affirmation of what most everyone in the Open interview room was already thinking.
McIlroy, who is about five months younger than the 26-year-old Fowler, already has four major titles and needs only the Masters to complete a career Grand Slam.
Spieth, just 21, captured the first two majors this season and arrived at St. Andrews looking to take another step toward becoming the first player to win the modern Grand Slam.
"Jordan has been playing amazing golf, and Rory has been doing that for quite some time," Fowler said. "I do have some work to do. I need to continue winning. I think that's the biggest thing: putting myself in position to win."
Fowler has certainly been a contender in golf's biggest events, though the momentum from his Players' win was tempered when he missed the cut at last month's U.S. Open, his hopes effectively dashed when he opened with an 81 at Chambers Bay.
After a couple of weeks off, he turned his attention to Scotland.
In no time at all, he felt as though his game was back to where he wanted it to be.
"It was nice to kind of quickly put that (U.S. Open) behind me," Fowler said.
Five years ago, he made his Open debut at the Old Course. The first day was brutal – a 79 that left him primarily focused on making the cut – but he bounced back with a pair of 67s sandwiched around a 71, leaving him in a tie for 14th place.
Ever since, he's been confident of his chances on a links course. He tied for fifth at the 2011 Open, and last year he finished two shots behind McIlroy at Royal Liverpool, claiming the runner-up spot along with Sergio Garcia.
"When I believed that I could really win over here was after my stellar start of 79 my first time out at St. Andrews," Fowler recalled. "Outside of that first round, I really would've had a chance to be in contention."
Aided by coach Butch Harmon, Fowler has largely tailored his preparations around the majors, a philosophy that clearly seems to be working but has yet to pay off with a title.
It seems only a matter of time.
He won't have to worry about McIlroy this time. The Northern Irishman was forced to withdraw after injuring his ankle while playing soccer with his friends.
Considering the state of Tiger Woods' game – the 14-time major champion also missed the cut at Chambers Bay and has slipped to 241st in the world rankings – Fowler appears to be the biggest threat to Spieth's Grand Slam chase.
Assuming Fowler can keep track of his lucky ball marker.
During a high-stakes practice round with Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker, he forgot to pick it up after a putt was conceded, causing a momentary bit of panic. Fortunately for Fowler, Miguel Angel Jimenez came along in a trailing group, spotted the coin, and returned it to a grateful owner.
"I had some cash ready to change over if I needed to get it back from Miguel," Fowler joked. "The coin has worked good. I'm surprised he didn't keep it."
Come Sunday evening, Fowler hopes to leave St. Andrews with both his marker and the claret jug.
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