ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Las Vegas Review-Journal photo by Erk Verduzco via AP / Rickie Fowler watches his shot from the 12th tee during the third round of the CJ Cup at Summit on Saturday in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS — Rickie Fowler couldn't remember the last time he saw his name atop the leaderboard during the weekend at a PGA Tour event. He didn't forget what he was supposed to do from there.

Winless in 32 months, Fowler returned to the spotlight Saturday in the foothills above Las Vegas. He shot a 9-under-par 63 — his lowest score in three years — and took a two-shot lead over four-time major winner Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland going into the final round of the CJ Cup at Summit.

"I haven't been in this position a whole lot in the last couple years," said the 32-year-old Fowler, whose most recent of five career PGA Tour wins was the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open. "So to feel the emotions again on the back nine, being around and then in the lead, it was great to see that I was still executing and hitting the shots that I wanted to."

His best chance to end a slump won't be an easy one.

The Summit Club has been yielding low rounds throughout this year's event, and a wild change in scores is not unusual. Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell held a five-shot lead through 36 holes after shooting 62-64. All it took was two bad swings into the desert for double bogeys, and the former Baylor School and University of Georgia standout ended the round with a 73 and a four-shot deficit.

McIlroy started the day nine shots behind. He ran off five straight birdies early, hit a 7-iron shot to 20 feet for an eagle on the final hole and closed out a 62 to move within two of Fowler, who was at 21-under 195 through 54 holes.

Las Vegas is known for wild entertainment, and that might go beyond the famed Strip that can be seen on the horizon.

"Rickie and Rory being up there, it's going to be an exciting day for sure for everyone in the golf world tomorrow to watch," said Australia's Adam Scott, who shot a 67. "There's tons of great players who can shoot a low one, including those guys."

Scott was three behind, tied for third with first-round leader Robert Streb (65) and Mexico's Abraham Ancer (63). Mitchell was tied for sixth with England's Tyrell Hatton (67).

Harris English, another former Baylor and Georgia standout, shot his second straight 68 and was tied for 56th at 7 under.

Fowler, who has plunged to No. 128 in the Official World Golf Ranking, birdied three of his last five holes to fly up the leaderboard.

"It's been a long time coming. It's been a long road, tough times," Fowler said. "We're not done."

Nine players were within five shots of the lead, and anything goes at this tournament.

Mitchell made a pair of early birdies, chipping in from behind the green on the par-3 second and hammering a 3-wood into 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 leaderboard and you're still right there, to try to get yourself to get motivated and get back in it because you know you don't have your best stuff right then," Mitchell said. "I'm glad the last two days were as good as they were so I can have a couple hiccups and still have a chance to win."

He wasn't alone in his struggles. Jordan Spieth figured being five back would allow him to keep his foot on the gas pedal. Spieth presumably forgot to put the car in gear. He didn't make a birdie Saturday until the 15th hole and had to settle for a 72, leaving him eight shots behind.

The average score for the week has been around 68.5.

McIlroy was thinking more about his game than how much ground he had to make up, but that changed when the putts started to fall.

"I think on a course like this you're going to have stretches where you're going to play good golf and hit good shots and maybe just not hole the putts," he said. "I played an eight-hole stretch yesterday in even par — I made eight pars 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 playing alongside Ancer. When they finished, the caddies for McIlroy and Ancer looked at the scores on their phones and quickly worked out McIlroy and Ancer had a better-ball score of 59.

Fowler did most of his work from tee to green. He holed 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. Mostly, he kept giving himself chances.

Fowler got up and down for birdies on the par 5s on the front. He had three two-putt birdies on the back nine — the two par 5s and a drive to 35 feet on the reachable par-4 12th.

It was simple, stress-free golf, and there hasn't been a lot of that for him lately. Earlier this year, Fowler failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, and he needed a sponsor exemption for the second straight year to play in the CJ Cup, where the 78-man field is an exclusive one.

"This is just three days, and golf tournaments are typically 72 holes, so we've got 18 more of them," Fowler said. "It's definitely going to be a challenge tomorrow."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT