CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rickie Fowler is making Mother’s Day increasingly hard for sons everywhere.
Last year on Mother’s Day, the golden child rallied from five-shots down with six holes to play to win The Players in an overtime for the ages; and on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Championship he moved into the lead with a similar charge to set the stage for a second consecutive unforgettable Mother’s Day for Lynn Fowler.
There aren’t enough roses in Charlotte to compete with that kind of largesse.
Fowler did the lion’s share of his work in a pair of three-hole sprints, playing Nos. 8-10 in 3 under par and claiming his spot in Sunday’s final group with a second birdie trifecta at Nos. 14-16 to move to 9 under par.
The favorite son moved into the lead and a shot clear of Roberto Castro and Andrew Loupe with a 4-under 68, salvaging an event that was in danger of being transformed into a pre-Players afterthought bereft of superstars.
“The meat of our schedule is from now until September,” Fowler said. “If you could pick a time to play well, I guess you would pick this time of year to go. This time of year has been good to me.”
For the week, Fowler is first in strokes gained-tee to green, fourth in fairways hit, third in greens in regulation and he picked up 2.634 strokes on the greens on Saturday thanks to his birdie barrages.
The 2012 champion at Quail Hollow rolled in birdie putts of 5 feet (No. 8), 16 feet (No. 9) and 8 feet (No. 10) to make his move. After dropping shots at the 11th and 13th holes, both the byproduct of missed greens, he added birdies at Nos. 14 (4 feet after driving the green), 15 (2 feet) and 16 (27 feet).
Perhaps the most telling part of Fowler’s play this week is the state of his game. Following a first-round 80 and missed cut at the Masters and a tie for 20th last week at the weather-delayed Zurich Classic, he conceded that he’s struggling to turn the ball from right-to-left with his driver, which most players will tell you is a prerequisite for many holes at Quail Hollow.
“I haven't had my best tee to green,” Fowler admitted. “I've definitely missed some short putts as well so I'm looking forward to cleaning it up even more tomorrow.”
But that’s the difference with Rickie 2.0. Before he teamed with Butch Harmon in late 2013 that type of inability to move the ball in the proper direction would have kept him from contending, but as his results have improved so has his ability to improvise.
His maiden PGA Tour victory here in 2012 against Rory McIlroy in extra holes may have been his breakthrough, but it was the steady progression he’s made toward consistency since he started working with Harmon that has given him the confidence needed to score well even if the swing isn’t perfect.
“From about a year ago to two years ago to where I'm at right now, whether it's being in the final group or having a chance to win, being in contention, it's completely different,” Fowler said. “Now it's fun to go out there and go take care of business.”
It seems like a lifetime ago that Fowler made an impressive statement with his Players victory just days after an anonymous player poll named him the Tour’s most overrated.
He’s also solidified himself as a bona fide star capable of carrying a leaderboard with his play as well as his panache and millennial appeal, which is fortunate because many of the game’s other standard-bearers seemed to take the week off.
McIlroy shot his second 73 of the week on Saturday and appears to be a clean 18 holes away from finding his winning form. He was tied with Adam Scott a touchdown shy of Fowler; while Phil Mickelson has been, well Phil Mickelson, posting a 4-over 76 on Day 3 that included the same number of birdies and bogeys (three) and a closing quadruple bogey-8 that assured the left-hander will not win the Wells Fargo Championship, again.
Fowler’s current confidence aside, Sunday will be a new scenario for him. In his three Tour victories the 27-year-old has come from behind in each and Quail Hollow, which is playing more than a stroke over par this week, is not exactly the kind of place that favors a defensive touch.
But if Fowler was concerned with this different perspective he wasn’t letting on, explaining the difference between his game now and in 2012, “The belief in the game and knowing what I'm capable of now,” he said.
At last year’s Players Lynn Fowler had to scramble back to TPC Sawgrass from a local airport to watch her son’s victory, but considering the ease her son is dismantling an increasingly difficult Quail Hollow there will be no early exit on Sunday.
“She’s flying with me to The Players, so she’s good,” Fowler smiled.