America is desperate to find the new Tiger Woods. Sport needs its heroes – someone to move the needle, as they say here. It needs rivals, too. Europe has Rory McIlroy. The United States now has Rickie Fowler. Thousands of fans gathered on the mound around the par three 17th with its island green.
When Fowler played through they rose to give him a standing ovation. The din they made suggested what they were sipping from their plastic beakers was not iced tea. It was a Spinal Tap moment as the volume was cranked up to 11.
Fowler fits the bill for a new generation of fans with his oversized baseball cap, his penchant for bright colours (his lurid Sunday orange making Tiger's red seem old hat), and his surfer dude long hair and neatly cropped goatee beard. He's a dead ringer for Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. Now that moves the needle. Even Phil Mickelson thinks so.
Fowler beat McIlroy in a play-off to win at Quail Hollow last Sunday. Here he shot a six-under-par 66 in the third round of the Players Championship, placing him at nine under par and tucked in behind the front-runners. Kevin Na picked up a shot at the last to go to 12 under, while Matt Kuchar is a shot behind him.
The 23-year-old Fowler is aiming to become the tournament's youngest ever winner and the first player to win back to back on the US Tour since Woods in 2009. Ian Poulter got a close-up view of America's new golfing poster boy playing with him yesterday. It's a rare day when Poulter is the most conservatively dressed in his group. His cricket white trousers were blitzed by Fowler's fluorescent blue.
Poulter signed for a one-under 71 to get to four under par. He liked what he saw of Fowler but said McIlroy is the better player, emphasising that the Northern Irishman is the world No 1 for a reason. But it is fair to say that Poulter is a fan of the Californian. "He's great for the game. He's got that look," Poulter said. "He's the same age as Rory and has that fun thing about him, which is cool for golf. They love him over here.
"It gives them something else to talk about when Tiger and Phil aren't playing well," he added. "The round of golf he played out there was phenomenal. He doesn't mind hitting it both ways. He stands up and hits it very quickly so he's confident in what he's trying to do. It's refreshing to see. He's not standing there like a robot trying to do things in a mechanical way. People are going to say his swing is not absolutely textbook, but he gets it done."
Enough of talking up Fowler, Poulter was still talking up his own chances. "I'm still in it," he said. "I'd have liked to have grabbed on to his coat tails a little bit and rolled in a few more putts but didn't. I've got to play exceptionally well, but it's possible."
The possibilities for Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are all but over. Two bogeys and not a single birdie for Westwood leaves him cast adrift at one under par, while Donald is three under. The lowest-scoring Englishman is the little known Brian Davis, once of London but a longtime resident of Orlando, a two-hour drive from Sawgrass. He goes into the final round at six under par along with Glasgow's Martin Laird, now of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Sawgrass is so brutal, the Players Championship has turned into a survival-of-the-fittest Iron Man contest as much as a test of who can shoot the lowest score. Pete Dye's diabolically difficult layout is pummelling the players. And they are hurting.
The list of reasons for withdrawals has been growing ever longer. So far the doctors' papers have cited sore shoulders, aching backs, dodgy knees and twisted ankles. Maybe they should rename the golf course "Soregrass".
"This course can get under your skin," Fowler said. No one has yet withdrawn with a Sawgrass skin complaint but there's still time for plenty of players to break out into a nasty rash during the final round.
Tiger's red shirt will make its customary appearance today but as far as this championship is concerned he is an irrelevance. The former World No 1 toiled to the 11th before notching his first birdie. By that time he had already stumbled to two bogeys. He's two under. The future is Fowler orange. Tiger's red is so last decade.