Inspired by his friend Jarrod Lyle, Rickie Fowler shoots 65 to lead PGA Championship

Zak Keefer, USA TODAY Network
Published 4:31 p.m. ET Aug. 9, 2018 | Updated 4:35 p.m. ET Aug. 9, 2018

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ST. LOUIS — After a few hours of darn-near perfect golf, a kiss from his fiancée and a “Great round, buddy!” from his pal Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler spoke about the friend he lost and the inspiration he now carries with him.

His name was Jarrod Lyle, the 36-year-old Australian pro golfer who lost his battle with leukemia Wednesday after fighting the disease off and on since he was 17. Fowler had chatted with him as recently as Friday.

“Jarrod wouldn’t want us feeling sorry for him, or feeling bad or anything,” Fowler said. “He’d probably come out here and kick us in the butt and tell us to man up and go have some fun.”

So Fowler did. Had fun to the tune of an opening-round 65 at the 100th PGA Championship Thursday at Belleview Country Club outside St. Louis, two shots clear of the rest of the field and the lowest score he’s ever carded in 31 career rounds in this tournament.

With his friend in his thoughts, Fowler — widely considered to currently hold the mantle of Best Player To Never Win a Major — has, through one round at least, put himself squarely in contention to finally break through. Instead of allowing his emotions to sidetrack him, Fowler said the memories of Jarrod, and the spirit in which he attacked the disease, lifted him through the round.

“It helps you,” Fowler said. “Being able to focus on the shot or what’s at hand there, and then in between, being able to think about Jarrod and his family and everything they’re dealing with and the impact he’s had on everyone out here.”

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Jason Day, a native Australian who early in his pro career lived across the street from Lyle and his family, fought back tears after his 67.

“It’s hard, because you sit there and you know him and he’s a buddy of yours, and he’s not there anymore,” Day said. “He’s never going to come back. That’s the hardest thing to sort of come by.”

Fowler, like Day and most of the tour pros, found out the news Wednesday night. In an instant, the navy shirt he was scheduled to wear in Thursday’s round was scrapped. He’d wear yellow — Jarrod’s favorite, and the color of the Challenge organization that helps children battling cancer, which Lyle supported for years. Last week, Fowler wore a pin supporting Lyle on the side of his Puma hat. Thursday it was front and center.

“A little bittersweet,” Fowler said. “You’re trying to go out there and keep living life like he did, but it’s unfortunate that he’s not here with us.”

As for the elephant in the room, Fowler, the ninth-ranked player in the world, is 35 major championships into his career and still chasing his first triumph. He’s come agonizingly close, over and over and over, yet seemed genuinely unfazed by whatever outside pressure encircles him during weeks like this.

Take Thursday: He drilled all but three fairways, hit 16 of 18 greens and needed only 29 putts. It was an absolute clinic.

He’s got the game to get it done. Fowler knows this.

“I don’t have to play special to win,” he said. “Like I said, wear out fairways, wear out greens, and keep it as stress free as possible and keep picking apart this golf course.”

Fowler was then asked if he knew how long it took the likes of Phil Mickelson to get the monkey off his back. Mickelson, owner of five majors wins today and already a Hall of Famer, owned the Best Player to Never Win a Major title for a lengthy stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His long-awaited triumph finally arrived at the 2004 Masters, the 47th major championship he’d entered.

Mickelson was 33 by then, and had slogged through nine top-five finishes before finally winning.

Fowler, 29, is playing in Major No. 36 and has eight top-fives, including a solo second at this year’s Masters.

“I always have hope,” Fowler said. “I know Phil didn’t win until his 30s. I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s not something I worry about. Keep putting ourselves in position, get in contention, we have had plenty of runner-ups. Jack (Nicklaus) had a lot of runner-ups, (so) we’ll just keep beating down that door.”

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