Rickie Fowler usually bypasses the PGA Tour stop in the California desert. He’s played in what is now called The American Express only twice before, and not since 2014. After Friday, one might wonder why.
Fowler, striking the ball with the precision of a diamond cutter, carved an eight-under-par 64 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West to reach 15 under and share the lead with Scottie Scheffler after the second day of this pro-am event. It’s the lowest score in relation to par after two rounds in the Murrieta-native’s 10-plus years on the tour.
He had a simple response when asked about how well he hit the ball Friday.
“Yeah, it was pretty good,” he said. “I didn’t miss by much on a lot of swings.”
As is almost always the case in a tournament where birdies come in bunches, Fowler has plenty of company in the upper echelon of the leaderboard.
Scheffler, in his first full season on the PGA Tour, began his round on the Nicklaus course — eight groups behind Fowler — with six birdies in his first seven holes, and held the lead until a double bogey on the par-four 18th hole (his ninth hole) temporarily derailed him.
But an eagle three on the seventh hole moved him within a stroke of the lead and a birdie on his final hole wrapped up a 64 to put him in a tie for first.
The long-hitting Scheffler, who is nine-under par on the eight par-fives he has seen so far, hasn’t played since a fifth-place finish at the RSM Classic in November.
“I think it was good having a nice reset,” he said. “I took a good chunk of time off.”
Andrew Landry, who has missed the cut in seven of his eight tournaments in the 2019-20 season, also shot a 64, at La Quinta Country Club, and was alone in third at 14 under.
Landry has played well in this tournament, though, with a tie for 28th last year and a second place in 2018.
Tony Finau made the biggest jump up the leaderboard by shooting a 10-under-par 62 on the Nicklaus course to get to 13 under, good enough for fourth place. Finau shot a 29 on his back nine, with seven birdies and two pars. He hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation.
“Sometimes you get over a golf ball and it’s nice to have the feeling of knowing where it’s going,” he said. “If I keep that up and the putter gets hot, we’ll have a chance on Sunday.”
Bud Cauley, looking for his first tour victory in his 170th event and coming off knee surgery in the fall, shot 64 on the Nicklaus course and is alone in fifth at 12 under. Ted Potter Jr., winner of the 2018 Pebble Beach Pro-Am, shot a 63 at La Quinta, to get to 11 under.
Crowd favorite and tournament host Phil Mickelson struggled to a 72 on the Nicklaus course, which played easiest of the three Friday, averaging 68.9 strokes. (La Quinta averaged 69.2 and the Stadium Course at PGA West 70.3). Mickelson is tied for 110th and needs to do something dramatic on the Stadium Course in the third round to survive the cut Saturday.
The low 65 players and ties will make it to the final round Sunday on the Stadium Course.
Fowler hit the ball with the confidence and touch that led many people to believe he would be a dominant force once he joined the tour full time in 2010. One of the most popular players with fans, he has not quite lived up to expectations, though he has five tour wins. He has not won a major title.
But his fairway-splitting drives and deft approach shots Friday showed the kind of execution that wins big events. He hit 10 of 14 fairways, missed only three greens in regulation and, had some of the well-struck 18-foot birdie putts on his first nine holes found the cup, his score could have been lower.
“I didn’t hit any bad putts today,” Fowler said. “That’s just the way it goes; you’re not going to make all of them. It would have been nice to see some more go in, but I made a lot of good ones on the back.”
The two holes where he did find a bit of trouble, Nos. 6 and 7 on his second nine, he managed to get up and down by making a couple of eight-foot par putts.
“It’s always nice when you don’t give shots back, especially in a tournament like this where typically the scores are going to be on the lower side,” Fowler said. “Bogey almost feels like you’re giving two shots back. ... Bogeys are bad here.”