NORTON — The question posed after Rickie Fowler shot a 5-under-par 66 on a sodden Sunday at TPC Boston to insert himself back into contention illustrated his place in the PGA Tour hierarchy and his current career predicament: What would make this a great year for him?
By many golfers’ standards, Fowler already has enjoyed a great year. He came into the newly christened Dell Technologies Championship, which wraps up on Labor Day, with nine top-10 finishes this season in 18 events, including a win at the Honda Classic in February. That tied him with Jordan Spieth (20 starts prior to Norton) for the second-most top-10s on Tour. Fowler ranked second in scoring average (68.926), trailing only Spieth. He was ranked 10th in the world, seventh on the PGA money list, and sixth in the standings for the FedEx Cup, the PGA’s fabricated four-tournament playoff to finish the season.
Despite what Fowler has accomplished, it’s what he hasn’t — winning a major — that frames his career for some. Fowler is one of the leading contenders for golf’s greatest backhanded compliment, the best golfer to never win a major. The photogenic and charismatic Fowler didn’t recoil at the “great year” question like some of his more peevish competitors might have. His answer, like his game Sunday, was unflinching and smooth.
“Well, a major is out of the question now, but I’ll take a FedEx Cup and enjoy the fall,” said Fowler, who finished tied for fifth this year at both the US Open and the PGA Championship. A second career win for the world’s 10th-ranked player at TPC Boston would certainly aid that cause.
Fowler came into the day seven shots back and tied for 28th at the tournament formerly known as the Deutsche Bank Championship. He propelled himself back to relevance by opening his day with a run of four birdies in his first seven holes. He drained a 35-footer on the 603-yard, par-5 seventh to get to 4 under on the day. However, his bogey-free day yielded just one more birdie, on the par-3 16th.
A brilliant 8-under 63 by Justin Thomas and a sneaky 65 from Marc Leishman left Fowler five shots behind the leaders and tied for 11th on a star-studded leaderboard that includes Spieth (10 under), Dustin Johnson (9 under), and Phil Mickelson (8 under).
Fowler in contention is an attraction. That was the case for the fans at TPC Boston, even on a day more conducive to cuddling up with Netflix than traipsing around a golf course to follow your favorite player. Fowler rewarded the fealty of his fans with a relevant round. The four birdies he had on the front nine on Sunday were more than he had in either of his first two rounds of the tournament, a 2-under-par 69 in Round 1 and an even-par effort on Saturday.
In some ways, Fowler’s third-round was a microcosm of his career. It should be appreciated on its own. But it left people wanting more, grasping at greatness. It had the potential to be sensational and memorable, but ultimately settled for being very good.
It could have been a stroke better if a frustrated Fowler had converted on No. 18. He hit a brilliant third shot from 199 yards, leaving himself a 10-footer to move to 8 under for the tournament. But his birdie putt would not cooperate on the soggy green, and he tapped in for par.
“Yeah, it was a good, solid day. Got off to a nice start. I think we were 4 under through seven and then just kind of cruised from there,” said Fowler, adorned in shockingly subdued hues of white and blue. “It would have been nice to get some balls up and down. I didn’t do a very good job of that the first two days and made a few more putts today. I made a lot of good swings the last couple of holes coming in, so it’s a nice positive to take into tomorrow.”
Fowler knows he is going to have to go limbo low on Labor Day to have a chance of winning the tournament. His career-best round is a 62 during the 2011 Waste Management Phoenix Open. It might take that type of magic to capture his second career win here and his fifth career PGA victory.
Fowler memorably celebrated his win at the TPC Boston in 2015. He entered the media tent holding a bottle of champagne aloft and provided bottles of bubbly for media members and volunteers in the tent. Call him Champagne Rickie. Fowler hopes to have something else to drink to in Norton.
But he is playing the long game with the FedEx Cup. He will definitely move on to the third event in the specious playoff, the BMW Championship, which will be held from Sept. 14-17 in Lake Forest, Ill. Fowler’s best finish in the FedEx Cup is fourth in 2015, the year after he registered top-five finishes in all four majors (placing second in both the US Open and the British Open).
There’s enough on Fowler’s résumé to know that he’s more than the golf gimmick people tried to portray him as earlier in his career when his Zac Efron locks and iridescent outfits garnered more attention than his game.
Fowler still is colorful on the course with his array of human highlighter attire and off it with a marketable personality that endears him to advertisers and young fans, but he is style with substance.
It took both Johnson and Sergio Garcia awhile to get the majors monkey off their backs and shed the unwanted “best golfer to never win a major” label. The 28-year-old Fowler can’t control that until 2018. All he can control is how he performs in the FedEx Cup.
But he doesn’t need the FedEx Cup to stamp his year a success.
“No, I would definitely feel better about it. But I’ve already felt great about the year that we’ve had,” said Fowler. “Yeah, I didn’t accomplish all of my goals, but at least we gave ourselves a chance to do so.”
That’s what Fowler did on Sunday at the Dell — he gave himself a chance.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.