John Clay: Mickelson, Fowler a dangerous duo for PGA-leading McIlroy

LOUISVILLE — All eyes will be on that final group Sunday at Valhalla to see whether Rory McIlroy can win his second PGA Championship, his second consecutive major and fourth overall.

The real Sunday fun, however, will be in the second-to-last group, the one with the 25-year-old California native who has played so well in majors but has yet to win one and the 44-year-old California native who has won five majors but not played well at all this year — until now.

Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson need no introductions.

"We're going to have some fun and hopefully him and I are going to get things rolling like we do on Tuesdays against the boys," Fowler said Saturday. "We'll have a good time, that's for sure."

With his trademark flat-brimmed Puma hat and colorful clothes, Fowler shot a 67 Saturday to go 11-under par for the tournament. With his trademark charge, Mickelson birdied four of the last five holes to shoot a 67 and go 10-under.

Fowler is two shots off McIlroy's lead and one behind Austrian surprise Bernd Wiesberger. Mickelson is three off the lead. Talk about dangerous.

"It's so fun for me to be back in the thick of it," said Mickelson, who hasn't had a top-10 tour finish all year. "It's been a nice change."

No change for Fowler. He has been in the thick of it all year, finishing in the top five in the year's previous three majors. Fowler tied for fifth in the Masters. He tied for second in both the U.S. Open and the British Open, the latter behind McIlroy, who was his playing partner the final round.

"Yeah, it will be similar to like kind of what Rory and I had Sunday at The Open," Fowler said of his Mickelson pairing. "I'm probably closer with Phil because I haven't spent as much time with Rory yet."

Rickie Yutaka Fowler is an interesting story. His middle name comes from his Japanese maternal grandfather. His maternal grandmother is Navajo. The 5-foot-9, 154-pounder largely taught himself to play golf growing up in Murrieta, Calif.

He ended up at Oklahoma State University and became the first freshman to be named NCAA Player of the Year. He still loves Oklahoma State and carries an orange golf bag and wears orange on Sundays.

Somewhere along the way, Fowler became practice buddies with Mickelson, especially on Tuesdays before tournaments when the duo normally tries to find a willing pair for a friendly game of golf (and wagering).

Justin Thomas told the Golf Channel that before the U.S. Open this year at Pinehurst, he received a text message from Mickelson saying, "I've got Rickie. Get a partner and we'll play."

By the way, Thomas and Jordan Spieth took down Mickelson and Fowler that day, a noted rare occurrence.

Sunday is not Tuesday, however, especially with a major championship on the line. Would a golfer rather play with someone he knows and is more likely to interact with, or someone he doesn't know, where there's less chance of a distraction?

"Kind of doesn't matter if I know the person well or not," Fowler said. "I still talk to them, even if they don't want me to talk to them. I may ask them some questions down the fairway and they may give me short answers and try and get me away."

So, Fowler said, he'd rather play with friends.

"It's a bit more relaxing. It's more fun, especially if (Phil) and I are able to get off to some good starts, we're able to feed off each other and kind of push each other along.

"There's a possibility if we get that going it could come down to the two of us, and who knows, we might be playing the last hole and throwing punches at each other."

Given the way McIlroy has played, you might think that farfetched until you remember Fowler hasn't been far behind. And Mickelson, well, at the final round of the Bridgestone last Sunday, he did shoot a 62.

Better keep an eye on that next-to-last group.

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