It sounds silly now – heck, it was silly then – to think that a year ago Rickie Fowler was tagged as one of the game’s most overrated players, a label that grew out of an anonymous players’ poll, which failed to factor in, among other things, jealousy of his style and engaging personality.
Granted, at that point, Fowler had won just once – the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship when he beat Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points in a playoff – but it was clear he was more than bright colors and flat-bill caps.
Then Fowler won The Players Championship last May, birdied the 72nd hole to win the Scottish Open, won the Deutsche Bank Championship in the FedEx Cup playoffs and, earlier this year, took down the Abu Dhabi Championship.
He’s had a better 12 months than everyone but Taylor Swift, and her wedge game needs work.
Sunday, Fowler can win his second Wells Fargo Championship and fifth significant event in 51 weeks. There are no guarantees obviously, not with Quail Hollow playing dangerously, particularly around the greens where calculating the proper equation between speed and slope might be better left to the wizards at Apple.
Nothing against Roberto Castro and James Hahn who are joined by world No. 10 Justin Rose as his closest pursuers, but Fowler can set the agenda Sunday, starting with a one-stroke lead.
This is where Fowler has shown himself to be different than most players. Given the chance to close out tournaments, Fowler now does it with impressive regularity. The only reason the game’s current Big Three – Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy – isn’t a foursome is because Fowler is still chasing a major championship title.
It feels like a technicality.
When he won here four years ago, Fowler held on to get himself into a playoff and he won the shoot-out. He’s different now.
“From a year ago or two years ago to where I’m at right now, whether it’s being in the final group, having a chance to win, being in contention, it’s completely different,” said Fowler, whose 4-under 68 equaled the lowest score posted Saturday.
“I would say before (it was) maybe not the complete belief or knowledge of knowing what to do and how to win to get the job done, but now it’s fun to go out there and go take care of business.”
A year ago, McIlroy shot 21-under par to win here. This year, the winner will be fortunate to get halfway there.
The wind has refused to quit gusting for three days and despite moving the tees on the four par-3 holes up by a total of 181 yards Saturday, the scoring average of 73.69 was the highest of the week. The eight Phil Mickelson made on the 18th hole helped push the number higher.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be that tough,” said Rose, who shot 69 to move into contention.
Rose had not intended to play this week but entered with three minutes to spare while waiting out the rain and muddy mess at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans last week.
“I felt like I needed another read on my game. So far so good,” said Rose, who finished fifth here in 2014.
Fowler feels his game rounding into form. He went to work with instructor Butch Harmon in late 2013, understanding the changes that would make his swing more efficient and reduce the stress on his back might take a while to kick in.
More changed than Fowler’s swing, though. He finished in the top five of all four majors in 2014, then developed a habit of winning, starting with the fireworks display he put on over the final 90 minutes at The Players Championship last May.
“If I didn’t have the win here going into The Players, I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Fowler said. “So it’s just been a bit of a process and building on top of each other.”
When Fowler and Castro (the final Sunday pairing) are on the back nine Sunday afternoon and the tournament is in the balance, workers will be on the front nine putting in motion a sprawling and aggressive renovation plan that will give Quail Hollow a different look when the PGA Championship is played here in 15 months.
The intention is to make Quail Hollow better than ever. Fowler knows how that works.
Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post
(www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.