With Tiger Woods sputtering, fans at TPC Sawgrass have a new favorite in Rickie Fowler

With Tiger Woods sputtering, fans at TPC Sawgrass have a new favorite in Rickie Fowler

Rickie Fowler has quickly become a fan favorite on Tour.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Europe has Rory McIlroy. America now has Rickie Fowler.

Thousands of fans gathered on the mound around the par-3 17th with its island green. When Rickie Fowler played through they rose to give him a standing ovation. The din suggested that what they were sipping from their plastic beakers was not iced tea. It was a Spinal Tap moment; 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 colors (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 playoff to win at Quail Hollow last Sunday. Saturday he shot a six-under-par 66 in round three of the Players Championship placing him at nine under par and tucked in behind the leaders, Kevin Na at 12-under and Matt Kuchar at 11-under. 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 PGA Tour since Woods in 2009.

It’s a rare day when Ian Poulter is the most conservatively dressed in his group, but his cricket white pants were blitzed by Fowler’s fluorescent blue when they played together on Saturday. Poulter signed for a one-under-par 71 to get to four under par. He liked what he saw of Fowler, but said McIlroy is the better player. Still, 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.

“The round of golf he played out there was phenomenal,” Poulter continued. “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’s not absolutely textbook, but he gets it done.”

Not getting it done were Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. Two bogeys and not a single birdie for Westwood leaves his cast adrift at one under par. Donald is three under. Sawgrass is so brutal that the Players Championship has turned into a survival-of-the-fittest contest as much as a test of who can shoot the lowest score. Pete Dye’s diabolically difficult layout is pummeling 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.

Tiger’s red shirt will make its customary appearance on Sunday but as far as this championship is concerned, he is irrelevant. The former World No. 1 toiled to the 11th hole on Saturday before notching his first birdie. By that time he had already stumbled to two bogeys. He’s two under par. The future is Fowler orange. Tiger’s red is sooo last decade.