If you care about the future of golf, Sunday’s fourth round of the British Open isn’t to be missed.
The final trip around Royal Liverpool may well turn into a coronation for Rory McIlroy, but the added spice is that he’ll be walking the fairways in the final pair with golf’s second-most intriguing young gun, Rickie Fowler.
And the Claret Jug, golf’s oldest prize, will be at stake as golf gets an all-day look at its best young stars.
The two 25-year-olds were born five months apart, and for the moment, McIlroy clearly is the superior talent. But if golf is to sustain the status it has achieved during the Tiger Woods era, it needs a Rory-Rickie rivalry.
The curtain on that potentially long-running show rose in grand fashion when the two were briefly tied for the lead during Saturday’s third round and no doubt moved most television viewers to the edge of their seats.
Alas, it didn’t last long, as McIlroy turned on the jets and raced away with a sizzling finish that included a pair of eagles that the Northern Irishman made look almost routine.
But let’s not lose sight of the undeniable fact that Fowler has played this year’s majors better than anyone, even if he’s still looking for that first title.
The hip and flashy Californian was tied for fifth at the Masters and tied for second at the U.S. Open this year, making him the only golfer on Earth with a pair of top fives in the first two majors. A third seems virtually certain on Sunday, given his steady play on his sport’s biggest stages.
"I’ve definitely felt very comfortable in majors this year," Fowler told ESPN after completing his four-under round of 68. "Very comfortable with the game, and excited about the experience tomorrow."
That Fowler was in the final pair at the U.S. Open figures to enhance chances for a compelling finish.
"If I can go out and get off to a solid start like I did today, kind of be in a position where I can put a little pressure on him," Fowler told ESPN. "We’ll see if I can do it tomorrow."
So, can Rory vs. Rickie fuel golf the way Arnie vs. Jack did back in the day? Highly unlikely.
But at the moment, they are golf’s best hope to provide a long-term duel that will bring extra eyes to the TV every weekend as Tiger fades from wear and tear and Phil Mickelson edges closer to his 50s.
ESPN’s Paul Azinger addressed that outlook as the broadcast of the third round came to an end: "It’s a new era in golf. It’s a new time in golf. The players are younger and stronger and faster. We’re seeing the next generation rear its head this week at Hoylake."
And Fowler is the perfect counterpart for the understated and oft-subdued McIlroy. Some old-schoolers may bristle at Fowler's oversized caps and apparel that looks like it glows in the dark, but so what?
Golf is filled with cookie-cutter players who are long on restrained demeanor and rigid stares and short on personality. Fowler, with his wispy mustache and sparse goatee, is a free-spirited change of pace who can draw the 20-somethings into golf.
Fowler also never had a swing coach as a youngster and was largely self-taught, which can’t help but encourage those who don’t want to learn the game from an ancient club pro who’s months shy of going on Social Security.
With a mother who is half-Japanese and half-Navajo, he also brings diversity to a sport that has always sorely lacked it. And as someone whose youth coincided with the social media boom, it hasn’t been a chore for the shaggy-haired Fowler to attract more than 700,000 followers on Twitter.
Golf simply cries out for more guys like Fowler, who spent much of the third round wearing a broad smile while he joked with Sergio Garcia.
The best of that came when Fowler grabbed a share of the lead with a run of birdies on Nos. 10, 11 and 12, suggesting that prime time had finally arrived for the kid with the Rolex endorsement.
Fowler has won only two professional tournaments, the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship in 2012 and the Asian Tour’s Kolon Korea Open in 2011. Neither is terribly notable, except for the fact that McIlroy was a runner-up both times.
So yes, Fowler has shown himself capable of facing a showdown with McIlroy, and not wilting.
They’ll start Sunday separated by six strokes, but McIlroy has bogeyed No. 1 the last two days, and Fowler birdied it Saturday. So there’s still hope that Fowler can inhale some of McIlroy’s breathing room early on and make it a finale to remember.
No matter which rising star you’re rooting for, if golf is going to move on to its next era, these are the two guys who can take it there the fastest.
Tom Weir covered several golf majors as a columnist for USA Today.
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