Much was made in the build-up to the 99th US PGA Championship of a young superstar returning to the scene of his first PGA Tour success and riding that wave of feel-good all the way to a major.
Yet the identity of that protagonist could well prove to be Rickie Fowler and not Rory McIlroy. Two years after McIlroy broke his US duck at Quail Hollow, Fowler did the same, actually beating his Northern Irish friend in a play-off at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship. Since then, Fowler has been described as a major winner in waiting, but although he has put himself in position on numerous occasions, it has still not happened.
A second-round 70 for a three-under total at the halfway point will have convinced his many admirers – not all of whom wear bright orange outfits complete with a flat-bill cap – that his time is finally here. Certainly his comments afterwards would not have dulled their expectations.
While McIlroy – with whom he played on the first two days and who he outscored by five shots – was declaring that Quail Hollow was basically unrecognisable to the test at which he has excelled so often before, Fowler remarked that he was on familiar territory.
“I feel very comfortable here,” Fowler said. “Obviously the holes are the same; there’s only a handful that are different and I feel like I’ve done a good job of getting used to those. Yeah, it’s more difficult, especially from the rough. But it’s a special place to me.”
Optimism plainly abounds in the Californian. But his doubters will opine that we have been here before and not only three years ago when Fowler set a record by finishing top five in each of the four major championships without actually winning any of them.
This year alone the 28-year-old was one off the lead going into the final round of the Masters before finishing 11th.
And at the US Open he was two off the pace through 54 holes before coming fifth. No shame in either. But no glory either.
Except there has already been something about his performance in Charlotte which points to a certain mettle. On Thursday, Fowler chucked away a two-under beginning with a triple-bogey on the par-fourth fifth. Yet while the detractors were rolling their eyeballs, Fowler started rolling his Titleist, pulling back three more shots for a 69.
On Friday he was superbly solid and controlled, with just the one bogey. Fowler knows what they are all saying, knows he is knee-deep in that debate about the best player of without a major, but all he can do is bow to patience and perseverance. “I got to that point when I finished top-five in all four majors and felt good there,” Fowler said. “I’ve been kind of at a standstill.
“But this year I feel like it’s been a new level of how comfortable I felt in the majors. It’s definitely a big improvement. It was nice to be in contention at the first two and I’m back in a good spot here. I’ll have fun this weekend.”