LOS ANGELES — Rickie Fowler was poised to leave the last green of the US Open and make his way to Sunday’s final 18 holes as a solo player. But as the sea layer rolled into the Los Angeles Country Club on Saturday night and every bit of sunlight evaporated, Fowler attempted and missed a short par putt on the 18th hole.
The sticking out of the lip drew a gasp from the surrounding gallery and left Fowler confused.
“I’m not sure why it didn’t move,” Fowler said of the putt. “It should have done that. I hit a good putt so obviously I can’t go back to that. Just crap.”
Fowler’s bogey left the door open to his playing partner Wyndham Clark, who was sitting at 9-under and had hit his best shot of the day – a 9-iron that nearly hit the cup and set off a violent club spin on the 18. Clark pocketed the short birdie -putt and scored a 69 that put him under 10, giving him a share of the lead with Fowler and a place in the bottom group.
Rory McIlroy was adrift in third place and world No. 1 player Scottie Scheffler was three shots behind.
“I’m not a big watcher of the scoreboard, but when I went up there I kind of knew where we were,” Clark said. “I really wanted to be in that last group.”
Clark said both his bogey putt at 17 and his birdie putt at 18 were difficult to interpret given the sudden darkness that fell on the course. He also said he felt Fowler’s putt was missed, in part because it was so dark, adding that he thought it had to do with the pairing’s late 3:40pm tee time.
“It’s a bit ridiculous that we teed off so late,” Clark said, adding that he and Fowler could have decided the round on the 18th green. “We played twilight golf. I’m not trying to make excuses, but it was definitely a challenge. It’s pretty tough and it’s crazy to think we’d do that on the last two holes of a major when we could have teeed off two hours earlier.
The final group of Fowler and Clark will tee off at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Fowler and Clark have more in common than their scores or the fact that they’ve played golf at Oklahoma State, and they’re aiming for their first big win. As they made and missed putts on the 18th green this Saturday, they also shared something else that would keep them together for another round: a putter.
Much like Fowler had tried his caddie Rickie Romano’s putter and fallen in love with it so much that he played a similar version, Clark had done the same. After seeing how many putts Fowler was making and trying out the putter while they were playing at Medalist Golf Club in Florida, Clark tried the Odyssey Versa Jailbird himself and was sold.
“I texted the Odyssey guy and said, ‘Hey, can you make me Rickie’s putter?'” Clark said after Saturday’s round. “And he’s like, ‘Well, what specs?’ I said, “Exactly the same.” So I literally had the exact same putter. And I was joking with Rickie today, he changed the grip. He changed the grip and shortened it by an inch, so I was like, ‘Okay, I need to change the grip and shorten it by an inch.'”
Putting has been key for Clark and Fowler this week. Both average the fewest putts per hole in the field, and Fowler leads the field in putt strokes won on Saturday. Both have also executed long-range putts at crucial moments. On Saturday’s 13th hole, Fowler made a 70-foot birdie putt that Clark followed with a 12-foot birdie putt to stay close. The two shuttled back and forth throughout the day and were never separated by more than two shots.
“I have overcome all odds,” Clark said. He had back-to-back bogeys once and said after the round he was nervous for most of the day. “I feel like my best lap is still out there.”
Clark is five years younger than Fowler and remembers not only how he looked up to the Oklahoma State University graduate when he was in college and Fowler was blowing up the golf world, but how willing Fowler was return to Stillwater and spend time with the golf team.
“Even when I came out [to the PGA Tour]”He was always sending me notes about good play,” Clark said. “Or even in some tournaments he would say to me, ‘Hey, I think this is a better play to play from the tee.'”
It’s safe to say Fowler won’t be providing any tips to Clark on Sunday, but regardless, the final lineup will likely feel less like a duel and more like a competitive round between friends. This time, however, the US Open is at stake.
“Everybody’s trailing behind Rickie,” Clark said. “I’m the outsider.”
Fowler didn’t quite see it that way, but it’s easy to see why the crowd at the LACC has been chanting his name and cheering him louder since Thursday. He’s had ups and downs throughout his career, and now he’s stepping up again for a chance to add a coveted major to his resume.
However, Clark and Fowler will not only have to compete against each other on Sunday. The penultimate group will feature two of the top three players in the world: McIlroy, who hit a 69 and finished at 9-under, and Scheffler, who finished with an eagle and a birdie and stayed at 7-under in the finals Day.
With the two main winners chasing down the first hopefuls, the pressure will no doubt be high on Sunday. For Fowler, at one point in his career, those pressures could have been overwhelming, even debilitating. But in his opinion things are different now.
“This is the best I’ve ever felt in my career, let alone a regular tournament, but especially a major tournament,” Fowler said. “Having been through the past few years, I’m not afraid of failure.”