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Fowler again in the spotlight at The Players

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rickie Fowler had just finished playing 18 holes at last year’s Memorial Tournament in brutally hot, humid conditions. He trudged off the final green suffering from heat exhaustion, then promptly signed his scorecard, grabbed a cold bottle of water and pulled up a chair. He then signed autographs for every orange-clad, flat-billed fan in attendance – and yes, there were plenty of ‘em.

This was hardly an isolated incident. With a public image that had long exceeded his results table, Fowler has been the subject of adoring fans and additional attention ever since turning professional three years ago at the age of 20.

Moral of the story: The transition from up-and-comer with potential to PGA Tour champion may have been smoother for Fowler than any other young winner of recent vintage, considering he was already equipped to deal with the responsibilities that most players with greater degrees of success handle on a daily basis.

Those needing proof of that theory need only check the Players Championship leaderboard, as Fowler has followed his initial victory at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship by once again climbing into contention.

In breezy conditions at TPC-Sawgrass on Saturday, the 23-year-old posted a 6-under 66 that left him in third place entering the final round, just three shots behind leader Kevin Na.

“Had some fun out there today,” Fowler said afterward. “I mean, other than bogeying the last, I'd have to say it was a fairly perfect round.”

Perhaps the biggest question about his second consecutive title contention is whether it happened because of last week’s win or in spite of it.

To his credit, Fowler took certain precautions prior to The Players in order to ensure he would be fresh for this week’s tournament.

“I took Monday off kind of to recharge and slept in a bit,” he intimated. “I only played five holes Tuesday, played the back nine on Wednesday, and got some time in the gym and made sure that physically and mentally I was ready to go for the week. I had seen the course a handful of times, so we knew where to hit it and what we were going to try to do. It was more making sure I was going to be ready to play golf and mentally and physically ready to go on Thursday.”

Throughout the past year, Fowler has been quick to acknowledge that much about his look – from the brightly colored wardrobe to the sporadically filled mustache – is about proving to people that he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks and he enjoys separating himself from the masses.

It’s that “me against the world” mentality that he carried into the victory and one which he still holds in regard to this event, even with his lofty leaderboard status.

“Having won last week, there's not many people that have gone and won, and then won the next week,” he explained. “So I feel like I'm in kind of an underdog position. Maybe overlooked at the start of the week … maybe a little tired.”

Tired? If anything, Fowler appears to be gaining momentum as the week progresses. He opened with 72, followed with a second-round 69 and then posted a 66 on the proverbial Moving Day that included seven birdies.

“It's not that I'm swinging it any better or anything like that,” he said. “I'm definitely confident that I've played really well the last two weeks prior to this. Finally get a few putts to drop. It's more just things are clicking. Everything is kind of coming together.”

Fowler is now trying to become the first player to win PGA Tour events on back-to-back weeks since Tiger Woods in 2009.

That’s hardly an easy proposition – just ask a guy who has only accomplished the feat twice in a Hall of Fame career.

“It's just tough to win any time, but back-to-back weeks is difficult because usually you have different conditions,” Phil Mickelson explained. “It can be mentally, physically draining to stay focused for 72 holes at the highest level and can be sometimes difficult to get up the following week.”

Fowler will attempt to overcome that mental and physical drain on Sunday, playing in the penultimate pairing. Asked whether he’ll be able to slide under the radar, he smiled and claimed, “No, I'll be dressed pretty bright, so you'll be able to see me.”

The truth is, Fowler has never been under the radar. Which perfectly explains why he’s dealt with recent success so well thus far.