The Open: Rickie Fowler clings on to coat-tails

Rickie Fowler briefly pulled level with Rory McIlroy yesterday, but will start six shots behind today. Picture: Getty
Rickie Fowler briefly pulled level with Rory McIlroy yesterday, but will start six shots behind today. Picture: Getty
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THE image of golf will be none the worse for this. Rory McIlroy, heir to Tiger Woods’ throne, on the verge of winning his third major title. Rickie Fowler, the ancient game’s answer to Justin Bieber, providing the ­nearest thing to a challenge. And Sergio ­Garcia, another young pretender not so long ago, just about hanging in there as the Open Championship draws towards its conclusion.

Whatever next? Women members for the R&A? An Open app for ­galleries to use in the stands? As the ­governing body that has embraced all of the above takes flak for also daring to arrange a two-tee start yesterday, here is what’s trending on Twitter: this game is not quite so crusty and old-fashioned as many would have us believe.

That much will be clear in the last match of today’s final round, when McIlroy partners Fowler, the 25-year-old American who also has something of the prodigy about him.

Seven years ago, he and McIlroy were competing against each other in the Walker Cup at Royal County Down, where many had them down as golf’s next great rivalry.

“It was just a matter of time before the two of us found a way to sneak into a final group together,” said Fowler last night. “You’re never really sure about what’s going to happen in the future, but in ’07, he was definitely the young star over here. And I was one of the young stars from the US. But, in the past couple of years, seeing what he’s been doing – he has two majors already – he’s a bit out in front of me right now.”

They have remained friends since their amateur days. They live close to each other in Jupiter, Florida, and often travel to tournaments in each other’s company. The other day, they joked on the putting green about Fowler’s dress sense. The American with the flat-billed cap always wears orange – a nod to Oklahoma State University – in the final round and this one is unlikely to be any different.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Fowler. “It’s going to be a good time. We’re good buddies and at the same time we both want to beat up on each other as bad as possible. It will be fun to see if I can go out and put a bit of pressure on him, make him earn it a bit and see if I can get myself in the mix. Maybe we’ll be able to throw some blows back and forth.”

The rap for Fowler is that he is all flash and no substance. While McIlroy has fulfilled his potential, the same cannot be said of his peer, who has only one PGA Tour title to his name, but there have been signs lately that it will come. He tied for fifth at this year’s Masters, as well as second at the US Open.

Had it not been for two bad swings that cost him shots on the back nine ­yesterday, he might have been closer to McIlroy here.

Garcia knows all about the weight of expectation. The Spaniard, now 34, was billed as a challenger for Woods when he burst on to the scene at the 1999 PGA Championship, but his failure to win a major since then has been hugely disappointing. There have been times when he has lost faith in his ability, but he seems to have his mojo back. If only he could sort out the putting problems that have so often let him down on the biggest stages.

Asked last night to put McIlroy’s progress into perspective, he said that several players bore comparison with Woods, including himself. “He’s definitely right up there. I don’t think Rory has been as consistent as maybe Tiger was for so many years, but when he’s at his best ... there’s so many really good players that when they’re at their best, they don’t have to envy Tiger. And I include myself in that. When I’m feeling good, when I’m feeling comfortable, I feel like I can hit any shot I want to. So it’s not that big of a difference.”

This could have been an opportunity for Garcia, but poor shots on 17 and 18, which McIlroy eagled, left him with a mountainous task. His 69, for nine under par, left him seven behind the leader. “If Rory plays the way he’s been playing, it’s difficult to see anybody catching him,” said ­Garcia. “The only thing I can do is play well, try to put a little pressure on him and see how he reacts.

“If he plays that well ­tomorrow, he’ll be a deserved champion. The only thing I can do is keep at it and keep putting myself in these ­situations, and hope that, one day, it is my turn.”

Garcia will play with Dustin ­Johnson in the penultimate match, but it will be the one following them that attracts the biggest crowds. Even in the company of his friend and neighbour, McIlroy will be ­wearing his game face, as he confirmed last night. “I definitely won’t be wearing orange, that’s for sure.”