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Rickie Fowler nearly shoots career-best PGA Tour score, tied for 36-hole lead at Zozo Championship

October 14, 2022
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Rickie Fowler walks off the 18th green after shooting a 63 in the second round of the Zozo Championship.

Atsushi Tomura

The rain was gone in Chiba, Japan, and with clear skies and a dry course, a resurgent Rickie Fowler shot a bogey-free 63 to jump into a tie for first at the Zozo Championship on Friday. It was just one stroke shy of his best score in 13-plus seasons on the PGA Tour—a 62 at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix more than a decade ago—and also just a shot behind the best round in the field. That honor belonged to Andrew Putnam, whose 62 put him at 10 under, tied with Fowler heading into the weekend.

The headline of Fowler's fall, of course, is that he's back with Butch Harmon, having jettisoned his coach of three years, John Tillery, after falling into the World Ranking abyss (he starts this week No. 160 in the OWGR). He's got a new caddie, too, longtime tour looper Ricky Romano, along with a new set of irons. The full makeover treated him well at the Narashino Country Club.

"It's always nice to have a clean card," Fowler said. "I think that was the biggest difference from yesterday to today. Obviously not as much moisture, we had a nice dry day, but on top of that, for me, just kind of cleaning up the card and managed my way around really nicely today."

That's an understatement. Fowler made birdie on four of his first eight holes, and just when he seemed to be in cruise control, he made a final surge to close with two more birdies, finishing at seven under for the day and tying Putnam atop the leaderboard. He was particularly strong on the par 3s, carding three birdies on the five short holes, highlighting his improved iron play.

Despite the low number, though, Fowler wasn't exactly ebullient about the technical side of his game.

"The last two days I wasn't exactly swinging it great," said Fowler, who is holding a 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour for the 11th time in his career and the first since the 2020 American Express (we won't remind him he’s only won one of the previous 10). "I kind of did a good job of managing my way around. I'll get some work in tomorrow before the round and try and exaggerate a few things where I'm a little bit tighter in lines and flights that I want."

Fowler's maternal grandfather, Yutaka, is Japanese by birth, and Fowler has long felt an affinity for Japan. Prior to the tournament, he spoke of his excitement at experiencing Tokyo culture again with fewer pandemic restrictions. He singled out the food, which included meals of sushi and ramen to start the week. But though he's won in South Korea (back in 2011, at the Korea Open), he's never broken through in Japan, and he'll try to change that this year.

The swing changes he and Harmon have made give him a fighting chance.

"It's kind of a combo of old and new," he explained before the tournament. "I feel like the last three years with Tillery has put me actually in a very good position to make some little changes and I have … a great foundation. Unfortunately, the play over the last few years didn't really reflect that and so that was a bummer that it just really wasn't working out.

Among the big things Fowler has worked on with Harmon, including some time last week in Las Vegas after missing the cut at the Shriners Children’s Open, is keeping a steeper left arm plane. Fowler says that ultimately gets his hands higher at the top and the club in a better position. “[It] gives me more room and space and makes the swing a bit more efficient."

It's worked so far, and Fowler knows he'll have to continue going low to nab his first tournament win since 2019, the year Harmon cut down on his tournament travel and the two split. Fowler’s prescription for doing so is simple—drive well, and play it from the fairway.

As for Putnam, he hasn't made a bogey in 36 holes, and with his birdie on 18, he briefly set the course record.

"Putter's heating up," he said. "This course feels a lot like home, northwest golf. Obviously, the clouds, I'm used to that, a lot of trees, and greens are rolling really smooth, so feel pretty comfortable out here."

Unfortunately for him, he held the course record for perhaps the shortest time ever. Less than two hours later, John Huh finished with a 61, highlighted by six birdies in a front-nine 28. For Huh, a 59 was a real possibility, but he was content to "settle" for the course record—"nine [under] is good enough, I think, for me," he joked.

Putnam and Fowler will be joined in Saturday's final threesome by Keegan Bradley, another player trying to reach his former heights. Bradley carded a 65 Friday to follow his opening 66, and at 9 under he trails by just a stroke. He was particularly happy to make birdie on 9 and 17, two of the toughest holes at the Zozo.

"I just played perfect today," he said. "It's one of the best rounds of the year, this whole year. That was great. I had a lot of fun out there and it's just very stress-free, which is always good. … Man, I'm excited."