Both of them have won at Quail Hollow. Both of them have been hailed as the future of golf. And both of them could really use a major victory. Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler played together Friday at the PGA Championship, but only one made the right moves to put himself in position for the win.
In retrospect, Rickie Fowler’s run of four straight major top-5 finishes back in 2014 perhaps wasn’t the best for his long-term prospects. That impressive stretch made everyone from golf elders to kids wearing snapback Rickie-model bucket hats assume that it was only a matter of time before Fowler broke through and started winning majors. And perhaps it is, but that “matter of time” is now going on three years.
Fowler’s majors since then haven’t trended in the right direction; he’s only got one top-five, at this year’s U.S. Open, in the last 11 majors. But two better-than-decent rounds at Quail Hollow have left him tied for fourth, five strokes off Kevin Kisner’s lead, sure, but very much in contention.
Fowler’s round, which started on the 10th hole, wobbled early with a bogey on the 12th, but he cleaned that up with two birdies over the next five holes, then kept a reliable par streak rolling through the rest of the round. Net result: a -1 for the day and -3 for the tournament, a conservative round that nonetheless played out exactly the way Fowler would have liked.
“The big thing is staying patient, not getting ahead of ourselves and not trying to get too much out of it,” Fowler said after the round, “just kind of accepting the golf course and working our way around, managing it well. It’s different than a normal tournament, especially when you come to this venue with how tough it’s playing. You can say you played defense a little bit, but it’s not exactly like you are playing scared out there. You are playing smart and picking your way around the golf course.”
At the other end of the spectrum stands McIlroy, whose game is anything but conservative. Start with the fact that he played his first hole down a cart path, and things only got stranger from there. Fowler made the turn at one-under for the round, and then things got weird. He bogeyed four of five holes on his second nine, then closed with two birdies and an edge-burning par to end the day. He finished with a second straight 72, and stands 10 strokes back of Kisner. It’ll be a long climb, but at least he’ll make the weekend.
“This is not the Quail Hollow we have gotten to know over the last ten years,” McIlroy said. “It’s a completely different golf course. Even if they didn’t do anything else with the golf course and just changed it to full bermuda (grass) like it is now, all of a sudden makes the golf course two shots more difficult.”
So both Fowler and McIlroy will get the chance to play the weekend, both with the chance to reverse some frustrating recent history. One’s a lot closer than the other, but both ought to make it interesting.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.