ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – No matter how hard he tries or how well he plays, Rickie Fowler just can't seem to get the better of Rory McIlroy.
A golfing rivalry that began at the 2007 Walker Cup and is being talked about as potentially the biggest of the new generation was one-sided in 2014, with McIlroy outgunning Fowler in the final rounds of the British Open and U.S. PGA Championship to win both major titles. McIlroy then crushed the American 5 and 4 in a singles match at the Ryder Cup.
Would the new year bring new luck for Fowler in his burgeoning competition with the world's best player? Not quite.
The friends — separated in age by six months — were grouped together for the opening two rounds of the Abu Dhabi Championship, but Fowler couldn't capitalize on a fast start that put him three shots clear of McIlroy after 10 holes on Thursday.
The pair, chatting away for much of their first rounds, traded birdie putts in a high-quality back nine but a strong finish from McIlroy — and Fowler's bogey at the last — saw them post 5-under 67s.
"I can't get rid of him," the 10th-ranked Fowler said with a smile as he looked across to McIlroy in a joint interview just off the 18th hole.
"Obviously being able to go back and forth and play against each other, it's good fun," Fowler added. "We got to see quite a bit of that last year and hopefully there's a lot more to come this year. It's going to be a long career, battling each other."
Fowler conceded on the eve of the tournament that McIlroy — the younger of the pair but on tour for two years longer — currently has the edge, chiefly because of his "better ball striking" and his length and consistency off the tee. Yet, the 26-year-old American believes his putting is stronger and that was the case on Thursday.
During a hot streak from No. 15 to No. 7 (they started at No. 10), Fowler made six birdie putts ranging from 10 feet to 35 feet and was assured with his par putts from closer in, too. McIlroy said he was inspired by Fowler's brilliance on the greens as he birdied five of his last seven holes.
"I just needed to hang on his coattails," McIlroy said. "He was kicking me on today, for sure. I was trying to keep up with him and didn't want to let him get too far ahead."
Golf is always looking for big rivalries and this McIlroy-Fowler one could endure. They are good friends, too, with Fowler having pledged to play in this year's Irish Open at Royal County Down that is being hosted by McIlroy's foundation.
Indeed, Europe could be seeing more of Fowler, who is looking to become more of a global player. Fellow American Patrick Reed announced on Twitter last month that he had become a member of the European Tour and Fowler is hinting he could follow suit.
"Definitely moving forward, that could be a possibility with the amount I could play in the future on the European Tour schedule," said Fowler, who is planning to play in the Scottish Open — the warmup for the British Open — again this summer.
That's for the future. As for 2015, Fowler is simply looking to make inroads into McIlroy's dominance — and capture a first major title after top-five placings in the four biggest tournaments in golf last year.
"I guess I'm not off to the hottest of starts for my career, with only two worldwide wins, one on the PGA Tour," Fowler said. "I'd like to start adding to that and make myself a little bit more of a prominent player."