Opinion Fowler, within reach of a masters title, tries to keep the past at bay

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rickie Fowler is 29 years old now. The hair is shorter; the golf hat has shrunk; the wardrobe has lost its flamboyance.

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Fowler, within reach of a masters title, tries to keep the past at bay

(NY Times)
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After he shot a dazzling 65 in the third round of the Masters on Saturday, moving him within reach of the leader, Patrick Reed, Fowler spoke in a low, restrained monotone.

The gleaming smile was muted.

It wasn’t disinterest but most likely a practiced detachment.

Fowler’s first major championship victory was perhaps no more than 24 hours and 18 holes away. In past years, his hot pursuit of such a career-defining achievement had led to disappointment. This time, Fowler was playing it cool.

He talked of process, not performance. He channeled his good friend Jordan Spieth and deflected attention from himself by talking about what “we” can accomplish, a reference to his caddie, Joe Skovron. Fowler insisted that he would not chase a Masters green jacket; his goal was all about patience and sticking to a game plan.

He sat in third place, five strokes behind Reed. A Masters victory might change everything for Fowler, but he wasn’t going to admit it. Not this time.

Because Rickie Fowler has been here before. Over and over.

A year ago, he began the final round of the Masters one stroke off the lead, then shot a 76 and tumbled into a tie for 11th. Overall, Fowler has 12 runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour (and four victories). He has had six top-five finishes at majors in the past five seasons.

Beginning in 2011, Fowler has been in the hunt heading into the final round of a major eight times, but still no victory.

Sunday brings another chance or, as Fowler said: “It’s definitely well within striking distance, especially at this place where anything can happen. This tournament really gets going once you make the turn on Sunday. My only job is to have a good nine first holes, so that puts me in position when we all get to the last nine holes.”

Fowler said he had analyzed his faltering finish at last year’s Masters and absorbed the lessons. They will guide him Sunday.

“Last year, at times, I may have gotten too defensive or too aggressive, and you can’t do that on this golf course,” he said. “That’s why you have to stick to your game plan for each hole. It would have been nice to take advantage of the position we were in last year, but we didn’t.”

Saturday was Fowler’s 29th round at the Masters and his first without a bogey on his scorecard. After needing 33 putts in the second round, when he shot a 72, Fowler had just 26 putts Saturday — with five birdies plus an eagle on the par-5 second hole.

Yet, he said, he had changed nothing about his putting from Friday to Saturday. Just staying with the game plan.

“That’s the thing, I’m not overthinking things,” Fowler said. “I’m definitely playing this golf course the best I have — ever — as far as how comfortable I am on each and every hole.”

In the tense closing holes Saturday, as Reed seemed to be sprinting away from the field, Fowler steadily kept pace. On the par-4 15th hole, his second shot cleared the pond but left him a dicey chip near the right green-side bunker. Fowler lofted the ball to within a foot of the hole and made birdie.

At the 17th hole, his approach from 149 yards stopped 7 feet behind the hole. He calmly rolled in a downhill, left-to-right breaking putt for another birdie. On the final hole, Fowler nearly sank an uphill, 26-foot putt but left it just a couple of inches short for a par.

“You take the good consequences with the bad ones and move on,” Fowler said evenly.

It will be the mantra moving forward for him and Skovron.

“We’ve just been working well, you know, just going through the full process — not getting too quick,” Fowler said. “We’re making sure to stay patient and making sure that I’m ready to commit and hit each shot.”

It is possible that the five-shot deficit facing Fowler on Sunday will work to his advantage. At the 2015 Players Championship, he trailed by five shots with six holes to play and finished with four birdies and an eagle to force a three-hole playoff.

When those three holes did not resolve the tie, Fowler won the fourth hole with a birdie after a brilliant tee shot.

Before this year’s Masters began, Fowler was asked if he expected to draw on his experience at the Players Championship.

“Yeah, no, you can’t expect that every time that you need it,” he answered. “I may never have a finish like that in the rest of my career. But, knowing that that happened there, or that I’ve done something before, it’s something to lean on.”

On Sunday, Fowler will return to golf’s biggest stage, a place he has yet to own. He has several strokes to make up and will be chasing a confident Reed, as well as Rory McIlroy. Trailing Reed by three shots, McIlroy will be seeking his own kind of Masters redemption.

This time, Fowler is determined to pursue victory in measured strides.

“It will be fun either way,” he said. “All you want is a shot come Sunday at the Masters, so we got that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

BILL PENNINGTON © 2018 The New York Times

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