LAS VEGAS – Rickie Fowler couldn’t remember the last time he saw his name top the leaderboard on the weekend of the PGA Tour. He did not forget what to do from there.
With no gains in 32 months, Fowler returned to the limelight on Saturday in the foothills over Las Vegas. He has a 9-under 63 – his lowest score in three years – and took a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy going into the final round of the CJ Cup at Summit.
“I haven’t been in this position much in recent years,” said Fowler, whose last win was the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open. “So to feel the emotions again on the back nine, close and then in the lead, it was great to see that I was still executing the shots I wanted.”
His best shot at ending a slump won’t be easy.
The Summit Club has low scores all week and a wild change in scores is not uncommon. Keith Mitchell started with a five-shot lead. All it took were two bad swings in the desert for double bogeys and he finished the round with a 73 and a four-shot deficit.
Rory McIlroy started the day with nine shots behind. He made five birdies in a row early, hit iron 7 to 20 feet for an eagle on the final hole and shot 62 to finish two behind.
Las Vegas is known for wild entertainment, and that may extend beyond the Strip that can be seen on the horizon.
“Rickie and Rory up there, tomorrow is definitely going to be an exciting day for everyone in the golf world to watch,” said Adam Scott, who had a 67 and three deficit. “There are a lot of great players who can shoot low, including those guys.”
Abraham Ancer had a 63. He was also three behind, along with Robert Streb (65).
Fowler, who has dropped to number 128 in the world rankings, made three of his last five holes and was 21-under 195.
“It’s been a long time. It’s been a long road, hard times,” said Fowler. “We’re not done yet.”
Nine players were within five shots of the lead, and anything goes in this tournament.
Keith Mitchell made some early birdies, breaking from behind the green on the par-3 second and hammering a 3-wood in a light breeze to set up a two-putt birdie on the par-5 third. And then he closed out the front nine with back-to-back double bogeys.
“It’s hard when you’re out there and you’re not playing well, but you look at the standings and you’re still there, trying to get yourself motivated and get back in because you know you don’t” Then you don’t have your best gear,’ Mitchell said.
“I’m glad the last two days have been as good as they have been so I can have a few hiccups and still have a shot at winning.”
He was not alone in his struggle. Jordan Spieth thought he could keep his foot on the accelerator by five. Spieth probably forgot to put the car in gear. He didn’t birdie until hole 15 and had to settle for 72, leaving eight shots behind.
The average score for the week was around 68.5.
McIlroy thought more about his game than how much ground he had to make up for, but that changed when the putts started falling.
“I think on a course like this you’re going to have stretches where you can play good golf and hit good shots and maybe just not make the putts,” he said. “I played an eight-hole piece in even par yesterday – I made eight pairs in a row. Then today I played nine holes in 6 under and all of a sudden you feel a little better about yourself.”
It was easy to feel good with Ancer. When they were done, McIlroy and Ancer’s caddies looked at the scores on their phones and quickly learned that McIlroy and Ancer had a better score of 59.
Fowler did most of his work from tee to green. He hit an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th to take the lead, and he had another birdie putt from that range on the eighth hole. Most of the time he kept giving himself chances.
Fowler went up and down for birdies on the par 5s up front. He had three birdies with two putts on the back nine – the two par 5s and a drive to 35 feet on the reachable 12th par-4.
It was easy, stress-free golf, and there hasn’t been much of that for him lately. Fowler failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup postseason for the first time in his career, and he needed a sponsorship waiver for the second year in a row to play in the CJ Cup.
“This is only three days and golf tournaments are usually 72 holes, so we have 18 more,” said Fowler. “It will definitely be a challenge tomorrow.”
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