CHARLOTTE -- Timing is everything, as the saying goes.
Rickie Fowler and his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, each suffered through holes they’d rather forget on Thursday at the PGA Championship. But while McIlroy’s morale-crushing double bogey late in his first round eventually proved too much to overcome, Fowler’s triple-bogey seven on his fifth hole left him time to recover.
And that’s exactly what he did.
“I knew I still had three par-5s ahead of me,” said Fowler after his eventual two-under 69, leaving him tied for eighth heading into Friday’s second round. “I told myself to accept it and move on.”
Outside of McIlroy, there’s no player with a greater affinity for the course than Rickie Fowler.
When he made his first appearance here in at 2010, Fowler spoke glowingly of the course. The course fit his game, he said, and the layout was “fun to play.” He finished sixth that year and tied for 16th in 2011, before firing rounds of 66 and 67 to capture his first PGA Tour win at the course in 2012.
“It’s a good feeling right now,” the then-23-year-old said on that occasion. “It’ll take a while for this to sink in.”
Five years on, Fowler has since cemented his status among the game’s elite, and coming into the PGA Championship’s final three rounds, he’ll have a chance to capture his first major on the course that kick-started it all.
Ahead of this year’s tournament, Quail Hollow removed about 800 trees and stretched the par-71 course to more than 7,600 yards. “It’s a bomber’s paradise,” said Tommy Fleetwood, who opened with a one-under 70. “If you can hit your driver well, it’s a real advantage.”
Fowler came into the week ranked 11th in strokes gained tee-to-green, boasting the highest driving accuracy of his career thanks to a midseason switch to a shorter-length driver. That tee-to-green precision is why Fowler ranks fourth on the PGA Tour in birdie average, and boasts a lower scoring average than every player but Jordan Spieth. Ultimately, it’s what saved his round on Thursday.
Birdies on the third and fourth preceded an uncharacteristic error on the fifth hole, where Fowler’s errant drive found a fairway bunker to the right. “It was a little mental mistake,” he said. “I forgot a swing cue I usually think of and missed the drive.”
But time was on his side.
Fowler found the green in two on the par-5 seventh, then holed a 12-foot birdie on the ninth to make the turn at one under.
He left himself an easy chip to the right of the green on the par-5 10th, which he got up-and-down for birdie, then after brief setback bogey on the par-4 11th, smashed a 350 yard drive on the short 14th hole en route to another birdie. A clutch par save on 16, followed by a close call for birdie on the 18th, put the seal on Fowler’s opening-round 69.
Major champions generally don’t make a habit of big numbers the week they win, but those that do make them early enough so they can mount a comeback.
If he walks away with the trophy this week, he’ll need to avoid the bad holes or at least make them early enough to overcome.
That’s the recipe he’ll need to follow.
“It would be nice not to have it,” said Fowler of his triple bogey, “but (if) you do have something happen early, it gives you more time to make up for it. With Rory having a rough hole later in the round, it’s kind of a shot in the gut.”
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