Rickie Fowler: The Antithesis of Overrated

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Updated: May 15, 2015
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By BLS Columnist, Jeff Borgman

As the late afternoon sun was setting on the final round of the 2015 Players Championship, Rickie Fowler was putting the final touches on his masterpiece. In the span of a few hours he went from being wrongfully labeled “overrated” by some of his anonymous peers, to clearly undervalued and underrated as a professional golfer. Not only did he silence his critics with a thrilling victory, but did so in a way that puts his gutsy performance squarely in the conversation of the greatest rounds of all time.

Before Fowler went on his incredible run on the back nine, he was five shots back of Sergio Garcia with only six holes left to play. Time was not on his side. He was so far back and the leaderboard was so congested that NBC was showing very few shots of his final round. That was until he “hit the button,” as he said in his post-round interview. After stagnating through his first 10 holes, a fire was lit on the 13th green when he rolled in a birdie after a solid approach to jump-start his back nine charge up the leaderboard.

After a par on the difficult 14th hole, Fowler rolled in another birdie on 15 as Johnny Miller and the NBC camera crew began to take notice. Standing on the right side of the fairway on the pivotal par-5 16th, Rickie Fowler took out a fairway wood and gave it a lash. Playing left and safe was apparently not an option in his mind as his second shot from 240 yards landed on the far right side of the green just a few yards from going in the water. A mistake there would have likely ended his tournament. Instead, the ball landed like a feather and a subsequent fortuitous bounce left Fowler 3-feet for an eagle which he would bury with ease. The new leaderboard had Fowler’s name directly under Garcia’s, only one shot back heading into the famed 17th. A ridiculously bold line was rewarded with what turned out to be a shot for the ages and arguably the shot of the tournament.

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There’s nothing scary about the short par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass other than the fact that it is an island green surrounded by water on all sides; a body of water that has ruined many players’ dreams in the past. Unpredictable winds and a tucked right pin placement on Sunday makes the tee shot one of the most pressure filled shots in golf. But on the aptly named Stadium Course’s most iconic hole, with thousands of fans cheering his name, Fowler became their gladiator. When countless other competitors bailed out to the left or succumbed to the nerves and found the water, Fowler had the moxie to go right at the pin. One of the best wedge players on tour, he stuck the shot and sank the putt. Miraculously, he was tied at the top with Garcia.

Still riding on pure confidence and adrenaline, he played the final hole of regulation to perfection. The two shots required at 18 can be menacing. With water all down the left side, just the slightest tug can spoil the party. Fowler barely noticed, and three brilliant shots later, he recorded a birdie for the clubhouse lead. He became the only player to finish birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie at the Players. Now he would need some luck.

He would wind up in a playoff with Garcia who was playing well, and Kevin Kisner who was playing great and who nearly sank a birdie putt on 18 to steal the show and claim the title. After a 3-hole aggregate playoff on 16, 17 and 18, Garcia was left to wonder what could have been. It was Fowler and the antagonist Kisner standing on 17th tee for a sudden death showdown.   A fairly tight shot by Kisner would leave Fowler knowing another birdie would be required for the win. And in the dusk’s dimming light, the crowd erupted as the people’s choice went right at the flag on 17 for the third time that afternoon and stuck the shot 5-feet from the hole, saving his best for last.   Following a missed putt by Kisner, Rickie Fowler confidently drilled his birdie putt to win the Players Championship, erasing any doubt regarding his golfing prowess.

Fowler courageously birdied the demanding 17th hole five out of six times for the week and finished the astonishing comeback by going 8-under in his final 10 holes. It’s gaudy stats like these that enabled him to cap off one of the greatest rounds in the history of golf. It was reminiscent of Jack Nicklaus’ 30 on the back nine to win the 1986 Masters at age 46. Comparatively, Charl Schwartzel historically rolled off four birdies over the final four holes at Augusta to capture the green jacket in 2011. The pressure of winning the most prestigious tournament in the world is well documented. However, the pressure that comes from the difficulty of each individual golf shot coming down the stretch at the Players is arguably more intense. The final 2 holes at Augusta are hazardless.  Each shot at TPC Sawgrass, from the approach to 16 to the second shot at 18 features water dangerously in play, daring a player to get too aggressive and make bogey or worse.   The slightest of errors would have ended Fowler’s magical run. But he showed no weakness or signs of nerves on that Sunday and executed every shot to near perfection. You would be hard pressed to recall better golf played under immense pressure at an event as big as the Players. Overnight, Rickie Fowler went from “overrated” to possibly legendary.

It makes you wonder how the anonymous fellow tour pros who voted Fowler overrated felt after he rolled in the winning putt and was receiving a healthy kiss from his model girlfriend. Can anyone say envious? Anonymity is cowardice and anyone who considered Rickie Fowler overrated as a golfer even before he won the Players needs to review the golf history books. Making the Ryder Cup as a rookie is rare and finishing in the top-5 in all four major championships in a single year is rarefied air. Only the likes of Tiger and Jack can make such a claim. Rickie Fowler was progressing at an abnormal rate for a young golfer, achieving what many do not before their 30th birthday. But now after winning the Players, his game has perhaps exceeded even his character, and he can thank his peers for igniting that fire.