Fowler's horde of fans grows by two legends at TPC Sawgrass

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Rickie Fowler records a 6-under 66, the best round of the day at TPC Sawgrass. (Getty Images)  
Rickie Fowler records a 6-under 66, the best round of the day at TPC Sawgrass. (Getty Images)  

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Rod Fowler was enjoying a Sunday on the golf course at home with his increasingly improving offspring last weekend when things started getting a little more exciting than he anticipated.

No, not with the kid you have in mind.

He was playing with daughter Taylor, who is on the golf team at Cal State Fullerton. They turned on dad's cell phone while on the course and began watching the PGA Tour broadcast as Taylor's big brother Rickie started lighting up the Quail Hollow Club.

Sensing something special was in the offing, Rod and Taylor made a beeline for the clubhouse at Bear Creek Golf Club in Murrietta, Calif., to watch the final few holes. They were not alone. It's the family's hometown and folks had been waiting for this day for three years, which happens to coincide with Rickie's tenure as a pro.

"There were quite a few people rooting him on in the clubhouse," Rod Fowler said, "because he's the hometown kid."

He's way bigger than that now, actually.

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Poised to match a feat that hasn't been threatened in years, Fowler shot the day's best round under crispy summer conditions at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday with a 6-under 66, taking a huge step toward winning for the second time in eight crazy days.

The last player on tour to win his first title then claim another the following week was David Duval in 1997. Once the light came on for Duval, he eventually climbed to world No. 1.

Fowler is only 23, and it remains to be seen just how good he can be, but he certainly has enough folks who believe he has the chops to give it a shot. If he wins Sunday, he would be the youngest champion at Sawgrass by four months.

"Obviously, he's got an inordinate amount of talent, it was just a matter of time before he broke through," Tiger Woods said Saturday of the colorful Californian, with whom he played the first two rounds this week. "He's the type of guy, once he understands what it takes to win out here, he can win a lot.

"Kind of like Double D [Duval]. Once he started learning how to win, he went off and won a bunch of tournaments."

This much is sure: Fowler went off on Saturday.

On a blustery day during which many top guns struggled to make any sort of move, including past event winners like Woods and Phil Mickelson, Fowler birdied six of his first 11 holes and jumped straight into the lead. He'll begin the final round three shots behind Kevin Na, who will play right behind him in the final twosome on Sunday.

If it turns into a fan popularity contest, it could be lopsided. Not only because Na plays so slow he's timed with a calendar and the crowd actually tends to grumble. As ever, the scrappy Fowler was followed by a doting crowd of kids dressed in his trademark orange garb, and more than a few grownups similarly attired.

"Yeah, I get a laugh out of it and feel honored when there's 40- or 50-year-old guys that are cruising around in all orange," Fowler said playfully. "It kind of shows you that they're having fun, they don't care what other people think. They're just out supporting and rocking the orange."

It's not just the clothes, either. Fowler's hat and shaggy hair have been copied to the point that it looks like an army of Jack Sparrows running around out there. Sounds like a stretch? We have that on good authority from eyewitnesses.

"[He looks like] Johnny Depp a little bit with the look," Mickelson deadpanned. "Doesn't he look exactly like him?"

He's starting to resemble an elite-class golfer, too, which is what we expected when Fowler nearly won in his second PGA Tour start three years ago, straight out of Oklahoma State. It didn't happen until last week, when he knocked off world No. 1 Rory McIlroy and veteran D.A. Points in a playoff with a memorable wedge shot on the first hole of sudden death to end it.

"He just really is a solid ball-striker and a good putter, a good short game, plays without fear," Mickelson said.

Then there's the whole Pied Piper deal, with kids following Fowler, now No. 24 in the world, along wherever he goes.

"He's a really good asset for the tour, and it's good to see him playing well," Mickelson said. "We want him on our team events, our Ryder Cup team for sure."

As Fowler settled into the interview chair after his round, he looked around the room and saw the same scribes he saw last week in Charlotte and cracked, "I'm back."

Fowler admitted that he's definitely freewheeling it this week, the pressure finally off after breaking through last Sunday.

"I'm a PGA Tour winner now," he grinned.

Can this kid really be the next big thing from the Yank ranks? At 5-feet-7½ and 155 pounds?

"I'm 5-9 in my spikes," he cracked.

Walking tall, for sure.

"Having the first win out of the way is huge," Fowler said. "I feel very confident about my game and haven't felt a whole lot of nerves."

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