ORLANDO, Fla. - The PGA Tour can be a lonely place, and even lonelier if you're playing with Rickie Fowler, who fired a two-under-par 70 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Saturday to go into the final round five back of leader Martin Laird (70).
"I heard 'Rickie' yelled about 17,000 times," Vaughn Taylor, Fowler's playing partner, said with a bemused smile after signing for a third-round 76.
And how many times did he hear his own name?
"Maybe twice," Taylor said.
It's obvious who the people's choice is this week and every week, and it's not Tiger Woods, who began the day six back but shot himself out of it with a 74.
Fowler is what the people want, and they're getting him. He signed autographs for a good 40 minutes after his round (typical). They love him. They take off their shirts for him to stain with his Sharpie, as one elderly gentleman did Saturday. They yell for him.
"People will say anything to get him to turn around," said Joe Skovron, Fowler's caddie and a childhood friend from Southern California.
When Skovron was 13, Fowler was 4 Â½ and joined the Valley Junior Golf Association in Temecula. Technically he was supposed to be 5, but he happened to be pretty good, plus he knew somebody - Skovron's mom ran the VJGA.
"Someone told him he had nice hair yesterday," Skovron continued. "It was a guy, a grown man. And then there's the most unoriginal one: 'Bieber!' We've heard it." Part of Fowler's appeal is the hair. Part of it is the pastel wardrobe. (He dressed head-to-toe in pink and white, redolent of a box of Good & Plenty candy, on Saturday. Coming Sunday: Fowler as Orange Creamsicle.) Part of it is that he's mastered the art of looking like a rock star without acting like one - a rare, Zen balancing act. Palmer could tell you all about it.
At five behind, Fowler is well within reach of the lead, especially if the wind blows, as Sunday's forecast predicts it will. At 22 he's finished second three times; all that separates him from mega-stardom is actually winning. Already he is the pro most likely to juice TV ratings, gate receipts and video game sales. The most electrifying moment from last fall's Ryder Cup? Fowler authored it, making birdies on the last four holes to come from 4 down and salvage a half point against Edoardo Molinari.
It hardly seemed like a coincidence that just as Fowler and Taylor got to the tee on the par-5 16th hole Saturday, a golf cart rolled up carrying none other than Palmer himself. The players approached to pay their respects, first Taylor and then Fowler. Young enough to be his grandkids - Sam Saunders, Palmer's grandson, fired a 69 Saturday and is tied for 38th place - Taylor and Fowler marched off toward the green, where Fowler would hole out from a bunker from 35 feet. Birdie.
That got him to seven under, but he would smash his 5-iron too far on the 221-yard, par-3 17th hole and bogey, giving the shot back and leaving him tied for fifth place with David Toms (69). They are five back, with just three men between them and Laird.
Spencer Levin (71) was at nine under, two off Laird's lead. Bubba Watson eagled the sixth hole and shot 68 to get to 7 under with Steve Marino (71).
"The goal is to put ourselves in contention those last, probably six holes, and go at it from there," said Fowler, who must hope the leaders don't run away from the field.
Whatever happens, he is here to stay. His game is similar to that of three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, whom Fowler thrashed 6&5 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, and that's intriguing with the Masters less than two weeks away. Fowler will get into his first Masters by virtue of his top-50 World Ranking and his finish on the 2010 money list, and he will head to Augusta for his first look Monday.
"It'll be the first time for both of us," Skovron said. "He'll get a club caddie, and I'll walk along with him, taking notes, which will be great for me. We may play some with Phil, because apparently he's going to be there, too. He and Bones [Mickelson's caddie, Jim Mackay] have been really good to us."
First, though, there's the matter of the Palmer Invitational. How many back is too far back? 10 behind, as Tiger is? It's too much. But five behind is probably not, what with Fowler having won at Bay Hill as a junior, and with the fact that he's good in the wind. He shot 79-67-71-67 to tie for 14th at the British Open at St. Andrews. Woods will not "make a 100-footer on 18 to win" this year, as Levin remembers from watching this event on TV, but if everything breaks just right Sunday, no one will miss him at all.