Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson thrill early crowds with early charges on Moving Day at RMC

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — On Moving Day in Detroit, two of the PGA Tour's biggest movers and shakers got to work.

Fan favorite Rickie Fowler and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson delighted the earlier arriving crowds Saturday at Detroit Golf Club, charging up the leaderboard in ideal scoring conditions during the third round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Fowler at one point took the temporary lead — he finished his round shortly after the midway-point leaders had teed off — and shot 4-under 68, while Watson shot 67.

Fowler was at 9 under and Watson at 8 under, a shot and two shots, respectively, out of the lead when they completed their round. By day's end, they were five and six shots back, still offering at least a glimmer of hope should they find some Sunday magic.

Rickie Fowler walks along the second hole.

"It's definitely gettable," Fowler said of the course, which was drying up under sunny skies and rising temperatures. "A little different wind direction than what we've seen the last few days.

"There's lower out there.

"It would have been nice to get more, but happy about it."

Fowler essentially serves as the unofficial host of the Detroit tournament as a Rocket Mortgage pitchman, and he's played some decent golf here, too, tying for 12th in 2020, and tying for 46th in 2019.

He could best his 2020 effort this week, and with a magical round Sunday, could possibly make a run at hoisting the Rocket Mortgage Classic trophy; he's long worn the Rocket Mortgage logo on his shirt. 

Fowler made three consecutive birdies in the middle of his round Saturday, from Nos. 7 through 10, a shot to 6 feet on the par-3 ninth being the highlight. He nearly made it five in a row when, from short left of the green on the par-3 12th, he hit a dandy flop that caught the edge of the cup but lipped out.

He then birdied the par-5 14th, taking advantage of a close call with the lake. Fowler actually topped his approach shot, which skirted along the fairway only about a foot right of the water, and rolled onto the green. He even let an exhale when the ball stayed dry. The two-putt birdie tied him temporarily for the lead, with overnight leaders Joaquin Niemann and Tom Lewis, who hadn't teed off when he birdied the 14th.

Niemann and Troy Merritt shared the lead at day's end, at 14 under.

"It seems like it's fairly simple when things are going that way," he said. "It's just hard to do that every time."

A bogey at No. 16 was the lone blemish on the back for Fowler, 32, who's game has been rounding into form of late, after he failed to qualify for the Masters and U.S. Open. He tied for eighth at the PGA, and tied for 11th at the Memorial, before missing the cut last week.

Watson, 42, coming off a solid showing at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut last week, hadn't made the cut in two previous tries at the Rocket, and made it on the number Friday before making up serious ground. That put him in the second group out Saturday morning, and he was 6 under through 14.

Bubba Watson lines up a putt on the second green.

He made bogey at two of his last three holes, including No. 18, which has been giving players fits all week with its treacherous green. That put him well behind what he thought the lead would be at day's end (he guessed close, 15 under or so), but it didn't dampen his mood.

After all, he still was basking in the fact he gets to play four rounds in Detroit, for the first time. 

"It's awesome," said Watson, who made a birdie on 17 late in his round Friday to make the cut. "Seeing everybody out here, getting to feel the energy, getting to the feel the love is obviously, it's really good."

Watson's game — he's one of the great shot-makers in the game — isn't necessarily perfect for Detroit Golf Club, which is tree-lined and tight, and he shapes the ball big-time, usually left to right. So, his contributions in his first two Rockets were mostly charitable. He has donated tens of thousands of dollars to causes associated with the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and last year he organized a made-for-TV exhibition that raised more than $1 million for the Changing the Course initiative to end Detroit's digital divide.

Being a factor actually on the course is a swell feeling, too, for the 14-time PGA Tour winner — though he hasn't won since 2018.

He was the leader late Sunday in Connecticut, until a bad back-nine meltdown sent him spiraling to a tie for 19th place. In past years, Watson might've stewed over that blowup for quite some time. He's been open over the years about his struggles with anxiety. He's a changed man. It took him seconds to move on.

"When did I sign my scorecard?" he said. "I was good."

Former PGA Championship winner Jason Day, 33, who also played well in Connecticut last week, shot a 3-under 69 to get to 7 under, bouncing back from a rough second round.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984