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Late birdie-eagle finish has Fowler in the hunt

Rickie Fowler
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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rickie Fowler stood over his ball in the left rough of PGA National’s par-5 closing hole on Saturday afternoon hoping to end with a flourish. On a day when swirling winds made conditions progressively difficult, a strong finish would put him into serious contention for the Honda Classic title entering the final round.

Not too far away, clustered amongst the legions of orange-clad fans wearing flat-bill hats in the gallery, was his 21-year-old sister, Taylor. She had walked the opening nine holes with big brother, but retired to the clubhouse for much of the back nine to rest her ailing back for a little while.

It was just two-and-a-half weeks ago, on Feb. 11, that Taylor was following Rickie in another way. Returning from a mountain bike ride near their Murrieta, Calif., home, he was in front when they came to a steep hill for which there are a few different options.

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“The way I go down is there’s a jump at the top and it’s probably a couple of hundred yards long and there’s a kicker at the bottom,” Rickie explained. “I’ll go cruise, hit it pretty fast.”

“I usually go around,” Taylor conceded, “but this time I hit a little jump at the bottom.”

She flew over the handlebars and landed on her head. Finding it difficult to breathe, Taylor got onto her back as they called an ambulance.

This is the part of the story where it should be noted that the Fowlers are so used to bumps and bruises that a little thing like landing on your head while mountain biking isn’t considered too serious. Rickie grew up racing motocross bikes and the entire family remains active in various outdoor activities.

“We’re a pretty extreme family, so no one was really freaking out,” Rickie said. “While she was laying there, we had to wait for paramedics to come take her out on a backboard. We were taking pictures, she was smiling. We’re a pretty easygoing family. Unless someone is knocked out, like a really serious injury, we’re used to it. It wasn’t like, 'oh my gosh, we need to get to the hospital right now.'”

When they finally did get to the hospital, it was discovered that Taylor had fractured her T3 through T7 vertebrae – essentially, the bones right between her shoulder blades.

No big deal. She’s a Fowler.

So after spending three days in the hospital, Taylor was fitted for a back brace and the next week was again on the road following Rickie, although this time at a golf tournament, watching him play the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

And no, she’s doesn’t blame him for leading her down that hill.

“We’ve done so much together,” said Taylor, who graduated from Cal State Fullerton in December. “I ride with him a lot, so it’s not like, ‘Oh my God, I just took my sister on a ride and almost killed her!’ It’s just how we are. I don’t blame him. I might hold it over him for a while, but I don’t blame him.”

That last sentence is accompanied by a cheery giggle, an unexpected yet refreshing sound from a young woman who suffered such a tough injury so recently.

But that’s just the Fowler way. Shake it off and move on.

That attitude helps to explain Rickie’s perpetual optimism on the golf course. It was on display once again Saturday, as bogeys on the second, 11th and 16th holes could have been enough to derail his hopes of contending.

He got one back with a birdie on 17, then stood in the rough on 18, exactly 238 yards from the hole, knowing he needed one final good swing to keep that momentum.

With Taylor watching – well, sort of.

“I could barely see, I was standing behind tall people,” she said. Big brother belted a hybrid to 14 feet and sank the eagle putt.

It put him at 5 under entering the final round, just three strokes behind co-leaders Luke Guthrie and Michael Thompson in search of his second career PGA Tour victory.

Taylor is hopeful that she’ll be able to walk all 18 holes Sunday, a remarkable achievement only if you fail to consider that she comes from a family in which injuries are nothing new.

Perhaps underscoring that is the fact that Rickie hasn’t made any declaration toward his sister this week. There won’t be a “Win one for the Gipper” speech. He isn’t playing this event for her or even especially motivated by her appearance in the gallery.

All of which is just fine with Taylor.

“He can win one for himself,” she said. “We’ll just be cheering him on.”