SCOTTSDALE, AZ – FEBRUARY 03: Rickie Fowler lines up a putt on the fifth hole during the third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on February 3, 2018 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
By Christopher Powers
It was an electric scene on moving day at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, with the threesome of Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele feeding off the crowd’s energy and vaulting into contention. Meanwhile, a few groups behind them, Rickie Fowler didn’t have much going his way, sitting at even par on his round through 12 holes.
But Fowler, a four-time PGA Tour winner, found another gear down the stretch at TPC Scottsdale, making four birdies on his final six holes, including three straight to finish his round to card a four-under 67, giving him the solo lead at 14-under par 199.
“I just kind of had to fight through it,” he said. “The swing was just a fraction off. It wasn’t bad, still made some good swings out there, but just had to try and get the ball in the short grass, get some looks and, yeah, try not to make many mistakes.”
Avoiding mistakes on Sunday will be essential for the 2015 Players champion, who hopes to finally break through at an event that has escaped him in recent years.
“It would just kind of be a long time coming in a way. I know we can win here, we have obviously been in the position to do it, love playing this golf course, I know can I play it well. So it’s just a matter of time. It would just be nice if it was sooner rather than later.”
One back at 13-under 200 is Rahm, who posted his low round of the week, a six-under 65 that included five birdies on his final eight holes. The Spaniard had the competition within the competition to thank for his late-round surge.
“I think it was about time for me to have a good finish with those two guys. It’s always great to play with Phil and Xander because they’re great people, but it’s even better when they get to play as good as you’re playing and that we all feed off each other,” Rahm said. “It felt like every time one got ahead, the other ones would make a birdie and catch up. If we had kept playing a couple more holes, they probably would have caught up and all of us would have finished at 13- or 14- or whatever it was.
“So I don’t know if I will or not, but it will be amazing to play with them two again tomorrow. If not, I hope to have the same positive energy we had today.”
Also at 13 under are Chez Reavie and Bryson DeChambeau, who looked poised to grab the 54-hole lead after three straight birdies at 13, 14 and 15, but he dropped one at the short par-4 17th and finished with a three-under 68. Reavie earned a spot in the final group with a four-under 67 that included birdies on his final two holes.
Mickelson and Schauffele each shot five-under 66s, putting them in a tie for fifth with Daniel Berger at 12-under 201. Remarkably, Mickelson’s round was bogey-free, aided by four up-and-down par saves on the front nine.
“If you look at it it looks like a very simple, solid bogey-free round, five-under. It was anything but that,” the five-time major champion said. “I was in a few spots there I made some really nice up-and-downs to keep the round going and when I did hit some good tee shots and hit some good shots into the fairway I was able to get aggressive and make some birdies.”
He made five total, including back-to-back to finish his round and put him in position to win for the first time since the 2013 Open Championship.
“Getting in contention has been very important for me because that’s why I play, that’s why I’m working hard,” he said. “So when I get in to those opportunities on Sunday, it’s motivation for me to work hard on the range, to work hard in the gym, and so having these moments is important.”
Six players are at 11-under 202, including Beau Hossler, who tied for the round of the day with a seven-under 64 that featured six birdies, an eagle and just one bogey. The former University of Texas standout has made all nine cuts this season, finishing inside the top 20 three times.
Matt Kuchar also fired a seven-under 64, getting him to 10-under 203.
One of the strangest rounds you’ll see all year came from Justin Thomas, who opened his third round with six consecutive birdies to grab the solo lead. But he wasn’t the same after making bogey at the par-3 seventh, playing his final 11 holes in five over par for an even par 71. He’s eight back at six-under 207.