Fowler shows he's a real rival to McIlroy after electrifying 66 moves him into Sawgrass contention

Seven days ago he beat Rory McIlroy in a play-off to win his first event on the US Tour.

And now, the exciting American Rickie Fowler has the perfect stage to fire up a rivalry with the Northern Irishman that might dominate the sport for the next decade.

While McIlroy headed to Rome to meet tennis-playing girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki after missing the halfway cut, Fowler was electrifying Sawgrass with a brilliant third-round 66 in the Players Championship to move to nine under and in touch with the lead.

Class act: Fowler

Class act: Fowler

If Fowler followed last week’s win with a victory in the marquee event on the US tour today, it would make everyone take notice. Dressed as he will be in his trademark last day colours of all orange, it would indicate the future is at least tinged with the colour.

‘It would certainly give the American press something to talk about rather than Tiger and Phil, wouldn’t it?’ said Ian Poulter, mischievously.Poulter had a ringside seat as Fowler conjured up a fabulous six-under-par round in difficult, windy conditions.

‘I thought I did pretty well to shoot 71 but it looked ordinary compared to Rickie’s performance,’ said the Englishman. ‘That was a phenomenal round of golf.’

As for a possible rivalry with McIlroy, a typical forthright Poulter said: ‘Taking nothing away from Rickie, he’s great for the game of golf, but Rory is the better player.’

Inspired golfer: Fowler

Inspired golfer: Fowler

Still, as he showed at the Ryder Cup last year, Fowler is an inspired golfer under pressure. At Celtic Manor he won the last four holes of his singles match to force a half and give his country a chance to win the cup.

He contributed hugely to the entertainment at The Open last year, tying for for fifth with a variety of shots that eluded fellow 23-year-old McIlroy.

The ovation Fowler received as he made his way around the celebrated island 17th green yesterday was worthy of Anfield on a big European night. Some 15,000 people were gathered and nearly all of them rose to laud the man threatening to make all of America forget about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Woods turned in a pedestrian 72 yesterday that gives him no chance of winning.

Mickelson, meanwhile, is two strokes nearer the lead on four under following a 70.

The British challenge has been disappointing after the high hopes for world No 2 Luke Donald and No 3 Lee Westwood. Donald shot 72 to be three under while Westwood didn’t manage a birdie in a poor score of 74. Poulter’s 71 left him on four under.

A pair of American-based Brits took up the challenge. Londoner Brian Davis is well placed on six under after a 72 and Scot Martin Laird recorded a 72 to be six under.

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