March 25, 2011

Arnold Palmer Invitational

Rising PGA Tour star Rickie Fowler naturally had a few butterflies when he shook hands with Arnold Palmer on the first tee box a few weeks ago at Seminole Golf Club. Seven birdies and an eagle later, Fowler had gained his nerve, as well as a fan in one of the game's legends during the annual Pro-Member tournament at Juno Beach's historic golf course.

"I wasn't too nervous," Fowler recalled following Thursday's opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "But obviously I felt that if I played well, I wanted to impress him a bit. I got a little smirk at the end with a handshake, so I was happy about that."

Fowler, 22, hopes to get another handshake and a smile Sunday on the 18th green at Bay Hill, where from the 81-year-old Palmer will greet the winner of his tournament.

Fowler, who's also looking for his first PGA Tour win, got off to a good start with a three-under 69 during windy conditions Thursday that produced the most rounds in the 80s (13) at Bay Hill since 1983.

Fowler is tied with Hunter Mahan in second place, three shots behind leader Spencer Levin, whose bogey free 66 was nearly nine strokes better than the day's scoring average.

Unlike Levin, Fowler benefited from calmer morning conditions and shot 32 on his opening nine holes.

But the real difference was putting, especially at the end of each player's round.

Fowler, a Southern California native who lives in Jupiter, needed 31 putts Thursday, including par misses of six feet and four feet on his final two holes -- Nos. 8 and 9.

"It could have really been a good round," he said. "I hit, I thought, really good par putts. They just didn't want go in."

Meanwhile, Levin, a 26-year-old native of Sacramento, Calif., needed just 24 putts, highlighted by par saves of eight feet on No. 8 and 11 feet on No. 9 to end his round.

"If I had bogeyed the last two, probably right now I wouldn't be too happy," said Levin, who led the Honda Classic after one round but eventually tied for 14th.

While Fowler and Levin both have four top-20 finishes in 2011, the golf world has been focused on a breakthrough win from Fowler ever since he lost in a playoff at the 2009 as a 20-year-old fresh out of Oklahoma State.

Fowler came close in 2010, with a pair of runner-up finishes. But this year, he hasn't been in contention on Sunday.

Fowler has shot some dazzling rounds, including an opening 65 at Torrey Pines, a second-round 62 in Phoenix and a closing 66 at Doral. He also handed Phil Mickelson his worst loss ever, 6 and 5, in the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Fowler, who missed just four greens Thursday, has three days to back up another impressive round. If he can, another handshake from The King could await him.

"I feel like my time is coming," Fowler said. "I just have to keep putting myself in position. The game is starting to come around, and I'm starting to feel really good with it. "I'm excited."

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