HOYLAKE, England — From the time they faced each other in the Walker Cup, a couple of 18-year-olds with the world at their feet, Rickie Fowler figured he’d go at it again someday with Rory McIlroy in a major championship.
If only it was a fair fight.
Fowler will be playing in the final group of a major for the second straight time, but he faces a daunting six-stroke deficit heading to Sunday at the British Open.
With a brilliant finish to the third round, McIlroy put himself in prime position to capture his third major championship. Fowler hopes he can put a bit of pressure on the leader.
“It doesn’t feel like a big stage,” Fowler said. “It feels like I’m supposed to be here.”
Fowler made a big charge at McIlroy with birdies on seven of the first 12 holes Saturday. When McIlroy, playing just behind Fowler in the final group at Royal Liverpool, bogeyed the 12th, they were tied. Fowler had erased a six-shot deficit and seemed to have all the momentum in his favor.
But McIlroy bounced back with a 35-footer for birdie at the 14th, then an eagle at the par-5 16th.
Fowler bogeyed those holes, essentially a five-shot swing in just under an hour.
“Bad swings happen,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that I kind of strung a few of them together and it cost me a couple of shots coming in.”
Fowler and McIlroy were both rising young stars when they played for their respective countries in the 2007 Walker Cup, a Ryder Cup-style competition matching the United States vs. Ireland and Great Britain.
Fowler contributed three points to the U.S. cause, teaming with Billy Horschel for a 2-and-1 foursomes victory over McIlroy and his partner. The Americans retained the trophy by a single point.
“He was definitely the young star over here, and I was one of the young stars from the U.S.,” Fowler recalled. “It was just a matter of time before the two of us found a way to sneak into a final group together.”
Now 25, Fowler was in a similar position just a month ago at the U.S. Open, his first appearance ever in the final group of a major.
He stepped on the tee at Pinehurst trailing Martin Kaymer by five strokes and never mustered any semblance of a charge, closing with a 2-over 72 that left him tied for second — eight shots behind the German.
“If I can go out and learn from what I did at the U.S. Open, try and get off to a bit of a better start, maybe I’m able to put a bit of pressure on Rory,” Fowler said. “Maybe we can get into a fun little match come the back nine.”
He can’t afford a repeat of 16, one of the easiest holes on the course. Fowler drove into a bunker and was fortunate just to get it out. He missed an 8-footer to save par, and the bogey looked even worse when McIlroy came along.
Fowler bounced back with a birdie at the par-5 closing hole, for a 4-under 68 and a 10-under 206 total. But McIlroy made another eagle to finish off his own 68, leaving him at 200.
But he’s made undeniable strides since hiring swing guru Butch Harmon late last year, gearing up his preparations to peak at the majors.
He hasn’t captured one yet, but it seems only a matter of time.
Fowler tied for fifth at the Masters before sharing the runner-up spot at Pinehurst with Erik Compton.
McIlroy, of course, already has two major titles, winning both the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship in eight-shot runaways. Given their age — McIlroy is about five months younger — and similar backgrounds, the comparisons are inevitable.
Fowler has some catching-up to do.
“He has two majors already,” the American said. “He’s a bit out in front of me right now.”
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