Flashy Fowler one round away from more firsts at THE PLAYERS

PGATOUR.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- For all the well-deserved attention Rickie Fowler gets for his flat-brimmed caps, his trend-setting fashion statements and his cutting-edge facial hair -- think Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean -- the 23-year-old emerging PGA TOUR star actually is something of a throwback.

He plays by feel, hits imaginative golf shots and moves around the golf course the same way his star is ascending over the golf world -- fast. Make that very fast. Which also would describe the move he made during a third-round 66 at THE PLAYERS Championship.

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With six birdies in his first 11 holes on a tough day at TPC Sawgrass, Fowler rocketed from a tie for 17th right into the lead before any of the three overnight leaders had begun their rounds. And by the time he finished shooting the lowest round of the day he had settled within striking distance, three strokes off the 12-under-par lead of Kevin Na (68) and two behind Matt Kuchar (69).

All of which helps explain the big smile Fowler wore, despite the 18th hole bogey that was the only blemish on his scorecard Saturday. He is officially on a roll. After taking care of his first PGA TOUR victory last week at the Wells Fargo Championship by birdieing the first hole in sudden death at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, and playing himself into contention again this week, Fowler is on the verge of more firsts.

It took him 72 PGA TOUR events to get his first victory, and he could get his second a week later. If he is able to pull it off -- and the 54-hole leader has not held on to win the PLAYERS since 2006 when Stephen Ames did so -- Fowler would become the first players since David Duval in 1997 to win his first and second tournaments in successive weeks and the first since Tiger Woods in 2001 to win a TOUR event and THE PLAYERS in succession.

Not bad for a kid who twice missed the cut in his previous starts. And now that he has that out of the way, he might be hard to hold back. The pressure is off, and Fowler is visibly more relaxed, inside and outside the ropes.

"I feel like I'm in kind of an underdog position," Fowler said, with a half-smile. "Maybe overlooked at the start of the week; that won last week, may be a little tired.

"I'm ready to go. Like I said last week, it's all about giving yourself chances out here, and I gave myself a chance last week on Sunday and took advantage of it and giving myself a chance here going into Sunday. Go out tomorrow, have some fun, give it our best shot and see where that puts us."

Saturday's effort puts him right in the thick of it, and his galleries will be among the largest of the day. So far this week, Fowler's followers have included one 50-something man rocking a flat-brimmed cap and clad in Oklahoma State orange from head to toe, many young kids decked out in color pants and shirts with oversize Puma caps spinning around their heads and lots of young girls hoping to see the latest sports heartthrob.

"But I definitely feel like I may slide under the radar a little bit just because of the win last week and that it's not exactly highly likely you win two weeks in a row," he said, still smiling. "We'll see what we can do."

Slide under the radar?

"No, I'll be dressed pretty bright," he laughed. "So you'll be able to see me."

Fowler was joking around, trying a little reverse psychology on himself and his audience. The fact is that, regardless of the outcome of the final round, Fowler already has served further notice -- just in case any might be necessary -- that he is the real deal.

Anyone who watched in his Ryder Cup debut at Wales in 2010 knew how well he could perform under pressure. His rally with four consecutive birdies to pull out a halve in his match with Edoardo Molinari of Italy was stunning. But winning on the PGA TOUR is the measuring stick, and no one knew that better than Fowler and his family.

And shortly after he pinned a shot with a 52-degree wedge to the flagstick and made the winning putt to beat Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points at Quail Hollow, he jumped in the car and jokingly asked his girlfriend, Alexandra Browne, to tell him who to call first.

His father, Rod Fowler, laughed as he retold the story on Saturday, not far from where Rickie's fans were pressing against gallery ropes hoping for an autograph from, or a glimpse of, his son.

"Alex was telling me when he got in the car, he was kind of kidding around, saying, 'Who should I call first?'" Rod Fowler said. "And she said, 'You better call your dad, he's probably jumping up and down back home.'"

That was about right, and Rod admitted as much.

"It was pretty exciting to get the phone call and just to be able to talk to him," he said. "Just to get that monkey off his back. We knew it was coming, we just didn't know how soon. And you know, with the press writing how many -- you know, I kind of liked the way he reacted, you know, 'I'm only 23.'"

That's right. Only 23, and on the verge of another PGA TOUR win, which could lead him to a whole lot more expectations that he seems very capable of dealing with.

"Having the first win out of the way is huge," Fowler said. "I haven't felt a whole lot of nerves, and I really felt comfortable out there today once I got around the lead and in the lead. Just going to enjoy the walk tomorrow and give it our best shot. Like I said, it's another chance, and we'll see how I take advantage of it."

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.

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