SHANGHAI (AP) Rickie Fowler dropped by PGA of America headquarters in Florida with the Ryder Cup trophy last week as a way to let the employees share in the U.S. celebration. The trophy stayed behind. Fowler brought memories of Hazeltine all the way to China.
While the Ryder Cup was a team victory, Fowler’s own contributions gave him a shot of confidence going into the HSBC Champions.
He was solid from tee to green, attacked the par 5s and holed one last birdie putt Thursday for a 7-under-par 65, leaving him one shot behind Rikard Karlberg of Sweden, who made an auspicious World Golf Championships debut with nine birdies in his round of 64.
Fowler had never won a match in three previous Ryder Cups before teaming with Phil Mickelson in a fourballs victory in the opening session at Hazeltine. More special was Sunday, when he overcame Justin Rose in a tight match for a 1-up victory.
”For me, finding a way to get a win in a singles match was big,” Fowler said. ”It’s a team victory, but I felt like I did my part to help the team. Coming out of that with a 2-1 record instead of 1-2 was important to me.”
He accompanied the gold trophy to Arnold Palmer’s memorial service, and then after emerging from a two-week break in which he didn’t set foot on a golf course, Fowler and Brooks Koepka stopped by the PGA of America with the cup.
Fowler hasn’t won since the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January, and his game hasn’t felt right since he lost good chances to win the Phoenix Open the first week in February and the Wells Fargo Championship in early May.
It wasn’t that far off. He just needed time to tighten some loose habits, and this summer of majors and Olympics didn’t allow for that. But coming off a big week at the Ryder Cup, ”I was excited to get back into the swing of things.”
”I got some good work in last week,” he said. ”It’s tough to do with how busy the summer was. It’s tough to break a little habit.”
He looked sharp again, and it helped to be in a group that was making plenty of birdies in the rain-softened conditions at Sheshan International. Fowler played alongside defending champion Russell Knox, who played bogey-free for a 66, and Paul Casey, who made an eagle on the par-5 14th hole on his way to a 67.
Fowler missed only three fairways and one green. He was at his best on the par 5s, leaving himself a simple up-and-down for birdie on the 14th, and twice having eagle putts on the 18th and second holes. He missed about a 10-foot eagle putt on No. 18.
”It’s always nice to start with 7 under, doesn’t matter where you’re at,” Fowler said. ”I knew with the soft conditions they were going to try to tuck some pins. It was going to be very scorable if you drove it in the fairways, and I was able to do that. Played very well tee-to-green and made things a lot easier from there. Stress-free round. Simple round.”
It felt even easier to Karlberg, who hardly missed a shot until the end of his round. Shortly after Fowler finished his round, Karlberg surged ahead with three birdies in a four-hole stretch on the back nine and had a chance at the course record until his last two holes.
He came up short and was nearly in a hazard on the par-3 17th, but his lie was good enough to get up-and-down. On the par-5 closing hole, Karlberg drove into a bunker, caught too much sand coming out, couldn’t reach the green from the rough and failed to save par. It was his only blemish of the day and he had few complaints.
Karlberg only twice before has played in a field this strong – at the British Open each of the last two years, where he missed the cut both times. He looked at the HSBC Champions as another tournament and felt as though everything was going his way.
”It felt amazing, every part of the game,” he said. ”Everything was so easy. It was just one of those days, a walk in the park.”
The soggy conditions weren’t nearly as difficult as the greens, which were damaged by excessive heat in the summer and massive rain over the last week. They were particularly bumpy toward the end of the round, but Karlberg stayed aggressive on them.
Knox, Daniel Berger and Hideki Matsuyama were at 66, while Casey joined Bill Haas and Francesco Molinari at 67. Nineteen players in the 78-man field broke 70.
Rory McIlroy wasn’t among them. He made only two birdies in a round of 71, while U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson struggled to keep his driver in play and had only one birdie in his round of 74.