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Fowler the frontrunner at 'anyone's tournament'

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The list of variables facing Rickie Fowler Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open stretches almost as long as the lines to enter the bleachers on the 16th hole.

There will be crowds. Loud, boisterous, vocal crowds looking to share their views on a variety of topics at every turn.

There will be a jam-packed, star-studded leaderboard, one that includes perhaps the hottest player in the game in Jon Rahm and the emotional fan favorite in Phil Mickelson, eager to end a victory drought on home turf.

And there will be the TPC Scottsdale skeletons still hanging in Fowler’s closet, lingering from a pair of painful runner-up finishes when he thought the tournament might be his.

Oh, and there’s the fact that Fowler has struggled to close out 54-hole leads and now must do so at an event where seven of the last eight champs have come from behind to win. Other than that, it should be a piece of cake.

It’s a tall task, sure, but Fowler is not shying away from the challenge as he looks to convert a one-shot advantage over three players into his first victory in nearly a year.

“It’s anyone’s tournament tomorrow,” Fowler said. “Yeah, I have a one-shot lead, but this tournament is not going to be given to anyone.”

Fowler is keenly aware of that last part given his history on the Stadium Course. His decision to lay up from 230 yards on the par-5 15th during the final round in 2010 – when he lost by a shot to Hunter Mahan  was criticized for months after he left the Arizona desert.

And Fowler took plenty of heat when he coughed up a two-shot lead with two holes to go back in 2016, ultimately losing in a playoff to Hideki Matsuyama and exiting the course in tears.

Halfway through the third round, it seemed like Fowler was in the process of writing another chapter in his history of near-misses here. While the other leaders put up birdies seemingly with ease, Fowler appeared out of sorts while playing his first seven holes in 1 over. But he turned the tide over the back nine, closing with three straight birdies to edge past Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau and Chez Reavie.

Amid a crowded leaderboard, Fowler now has another chance to re-write the script on a course where he has often played well, but not well enough.

“It would just be kind of a long time coming in a way,” Fowler said. “I know we can win here. We have obviously been in the position to do it. I love playing the golf course, I know I can play it well, so it’s just a matter of time. It would just be nice if it was sooner rather than later.”

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Of course, Fowler isn’t the only one entering the final round with title aspirations. Rahm is in search of his second win in three weeks and will have plenty of support from a pro-Arizona State crowd. A slightly more unheralded Sun Devil, Reavie, will round out the day’s final threesome.

DeChambeau entered the third round with a share of the lead, and he briefly moved one shot clear after a birdie on No. 16. While he’s making his first appearance at this event, he doesn’t need a primer on how the final round will play out.

“You’ve got to go for flags,” DeChambeau said. “I mean, that’s the bottom line. You’ve got to do it. Everybody’s looking to win out here.”

Then of course there’s Mickelson, two shots adrift and holding down sole possession of the sentimental storyline. Already a three-time champ at this event, he nearly brought the crowd to its knees with his approach to the final green that led to a kick-in birdie.

He’s had several chances to win since last lifting a trophy at The Open in 2013, but perhaps there would be no more fitting venue for his drought to end than Scottsdale.

“This would be the place to do it, because I really do feel the energy of the crowd and the support coming down the stretch,” Mickelson said. “Those last five, six holes, I seem to play some of my best golf, hit some of my best shots in that environment with the people here, the way they have been so supportive.”

But he, like the rest of the field, will start the day looking up at Fowler, who watched his title aspirations nearly unravel on the front nine Saturday but quickly steadied the ship. It certainly won’t be easy to win, and it will likely take a fourth straight low number on a course that has already proven this week that it can bite back against even the world’s best.

But Fowler is facing the challenge head-on, eager to once again enter the loudest arena on the PGA Tour with a chance to claim a trophy he believes should have already been on his mantle.

“Really the tournament is the last six, seven holes,” Fowler said. “Once you get to 13, then it’s a sprint to the finish in a way, with how much scoring opportunities there are. So really tomorrow just stay patient, get off to a little bit better start and have some fun with it.”