Rickie Fowler returns to big stage and takes lead in Vegas

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Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits on the 17th hole during first round of the CJ Cup golf tournament Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Rickie Fowler couldn’t remember the last time he saw his name at the top of the leaderboard on the weekend of the PGA Tour. 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 has a 9-under 63 — his lowest score in three years — and took a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy 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 Fowler, whose last victory 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 he 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 scores all week and a wild change in scores is not unusual. Keith Mitchell started with a five-shot lead. All it took was two bad swings into the desert for double bogeys and he ended the round with a 73 and a four-shot deficit.

Rory McIlroy started the day nine shots behind. He ran off five straight birdies early, hit 7-iron to 20 feet for an eagle on the final hole and shot 62 to finish two behind.

Las Vegas is known for wild entertainment, and that might go beyond the 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 Adam Scott, who had a 67 and was three behind. “There’s tons of great players who can shoot a low one, including those guys.”

Abraham Ancer had a 63. He also was three behind, along with Robert Streb (65).

Fowler, who has plunged to No. 128 in the world ranking, birdied three of his last five holes and was at 21-under 195.

“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.

Keith 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 birdie 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. Fowler failed to qualifying for the FedEx Cup postseason for the first time in his career, and he needed a sponsor exemption for the second straight year to play in the CJ Cup.

“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.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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