Before he even teed off, Rickie Fowler knew this was going to be a different day at the AT&T National. The course record already had been matched, with several other low rounds in progress at suddenly soft Aronimink Golf Club.
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One thought crossed his mind: Go time.
That’s the message Fowler always puts on Twitter right before he plays, and off he went. He birdied six of his opening 10 holes – and missed two other chances inside 10 feet. He wound up with a 6-under 64 on Saturday and a share of the lead with Nick Watney, who set the course record with a 62.
”I got out, and my game has been feeling good all week,” Fowler said. ”Went out and started off well, hit some good shots and kept moving from there.”
Watney took a while to get moving. He made a mess of the par-5 ninth and was even-par on the front nine, going nowhere. What happened after that, not even Watney can explain.
”The hole looked really big on the back,” said Watney, a World Golf Championship winner. ”The ball was going where I was looking, and by the time I looked up, I was 8 under.”
That’s 8 under for his round, and the back nine alone.
After three straight birdies, he then made a 30-foot eagle putt on the par-5 16th. Facing a dangerous pin on the par-3 17th, he went after it with a wedge to 5 feet and another birdie. Watney shot 27 on the back, missing by one the PGA Tour’s nine-hole record.
When the massacre of Aronimink was over – 40 of 76 players shot in the 60s, including 14 rounds at 66 or better – nothing had really been settled except for a lot of birdies being made.
Fowler and Watney were at 9-under 201, one shot ahead of 36-hole leader K.J. Choi, who came to life late in his round with two birdies on the final three holes to salvage a 69.
Steve Marino, who had a 63 to own the course record for about 20 minutes, was two shots behind at 7-under 205 along with Webb Simpson (64) and Adam Scott (66). The group another shot back included Chris Kirk, whose 63 was in the record book much longer – about an hour.
Scott was tempted to start firing at flags when he saw all low scores, but stuck to his plan and meticulously worked his way around the golf course.
”I’m quite happy with a 66, to be honest,” Scott said. ”But yeah, it doesn’t really stack up against a 62, does it?”
For all the hype over the fashionable Fowler, the 22-year-old hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in 46 starts as a pro. He gave himself another chance at Aronimink.
But he isn’t the only player going for his first win. Eight of the top 12 players on the leaderboard have yet to win on the PGA Tour.
Marino is regarded as among the best to have never collected a PGA Tour trophy, and he and Simpson – also winless on tour – could have even more at stake Sunday. The leading player among the top five not already eligible will be exempt for the British Open. Marino and Simpson also are battling for a higher ranking to see who will be the top alternate – which becomes more significant with Tiger Woods not expected to compete at Royal St. George’s.
Watney, the highest-ranked player at Aronimink at No. 15 in the world, didn’t figure to be part of the mix when he ended his front nine with back-to-back bogeys. He birdied his next two holes, then played a five-hole stretch in 6 under capped by his birdie on the 17th.
”I guess anything is possible,” Watney said. ”But I don’t think you ever expect to shoot that low. You don’t go on to the golf course very often anticipating a 62.”
Certainly not this golf course.
In the opening round Thursday, only four of the holes average under par. On Saturday, with softer greens, tees moved forward and some hole locations that allowed shots to funnel toward the pin, half of the holes played under par.
Not everyone took advantage.
Chris Riley, playing in the last group with Choi, wound up with a 75. Justin Leonard and Bo Van Pelt each had a 71 to fall five shots behind, although they are still very much in the game.
Mark Russell, a vice president of competition in charge of setting up the course, said the watering pattern didn’t change and attributed the soft conditions to more humidity in the air. It doesn’t figure to change much for the final round, with storms in the forecast. The starting times for Sunday were moved up to try to avoid any weather delays.
Watney’s last win was his biggest – a big drive on the 18th hole of the Blue Monster at Doral for a birdie and a two-shot win, proving to himself that he could deliver key shots under pressure.
Fowler is trying to draw on the experience of being a runner-up. He had two good chances last year, laying up on a par 5 late in his round in Phoenix, then losing a lead at the Memorial when he hit a tee shot into the water on the par-3 12th hole.
”I think the biggest thing is just go out and be patient, not get ahead of myself and not get too excited or anxious, just sit back, relax, go through things the same way tonight and just go have some fun tomorrow,” Fowler said.