Rickie Fowler was too nice.
That was why he hadn’t won a tournament in three years and four days. No killer instinct. Heck, he had halved four of his seven Ryder Cup matches, and what’s nicer than that? Hey, you get a half a point, I get a half a point, no one goes home a loser, and we all get ice cream!
Well, so much for that idea.
“There are times where being mean could help, but I don’t see why being nice can hurt you in any way,” Fowler said as he sat before the press after one of his patented (but all-too-rare) Rickie charges at the Players Championship on Sunday, when he went 6 under for his last six holes and prevailed in a three-hole aggregate playoff and then sudden death.
Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner, the other playoff combatants, went home trophy-less, but no one is going broke. They each won $880,000. Fowler, who made $1.8 million, doesn’t need the dough. He could sit back and watch all that endorsement money roll in and compound in the bank. He is comfortable, but on Sunday he finally hit the clutch, must-make shots that make most players uncomfortable. He played with urgency, with a need to win.
What to make of Fowler now? Many people feared that he was on his way to becoming golf’s Anna Kournikova -- fat endorsement portfolio, thin resumé -- that there was truth in the Sports Illustrated anonymous player poll, in which Fowler was tagged “most overrated player” with Ian Poulter, and which couldn’t have gotten any more publicity if it were on a neon billboard over the 17th green.
“I laughed at the poll,” Fowler said.
But those in his inner circle told another story: He was pissed.
Fowler’s supporters are many. His appeal to kids, in particular, could have far-reaching effects on the growth of the game. Those supporters said he notched four top-five finishes in the majors last year, which is Tiger and Jack stuff. But his detractors said he didn’t win any of them and crash-landed his attempt to land the PGA Championship. He was too nice, or too comfortable, or missing the clutch gene, and it didn’t help when world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, a friend, mercilessly trampled him 5 and 4 at the Ryder Cup.
Maybe, though, Fowler has begun to remember who he used to be. The dirt-bike-riding, Red Bull-chugging marketing juggernaut seemed to find himself at Sawgrass and in particular at the 17th hole, an aerial spectacle where hesitation is met with disaster -- the closest thing golf will ever have to an X Games-style motorcycle jump. Fowler birdied it five times in six chances last week, including three times in a row Sunday.
“What’s the threshold here on who calls what’s overrated?” playoff loser Kisner asked. “I wouldn’t get too worried about that, but I’m sure he was fired up to get that -- whoever said that -- off his shoulder, and I think he proved it today. That was a sick shot he hit on 17 [in sudden death], right of the hole four feet. That’s pretty dadgum good.”
Edoardo Molinari could tell you about Fowler’s extra gear. The Italian was the innocent bystander as Fowler hit the gas with four straight birdies to halve their critical singles match at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.
Josh Anderson, an aspiring Tour pro and one of Fowler’s teammates at Murrieta (Calif.) Valley High, recalls the day in their senior year when he, Anderson, shot 67 at the CIF Southern Section Championship.
“Rickie came in with a 62,” Anderson says, laughing. “And he’d forgotten his lob wedge. He’d been chipping with it around the house.”
In winning the Players, Fowler went 1 over par for his first 12 holes to seemingly play his way out of contention, but then turned into high school Rickie, who couldn’t stop making birdies. He turned into the icy closer we’ve seen at the Ryder Cup, the guy who beat Phil Mickelson 6 and 5 at the 2011 Accenture Match Play, and the player who went 3-0 in pool play at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play at TPC Harding Park. (He lost to Louis Oosthuizen 1 down in the round of 16.)
Fowler blistered drives and laced irons and poured in putts around a course that Pete Dye built to be the gnarliest motocross course in golf. The winner stared disaster in the face and never blinked. He made himself uncomfortable and thrived in that high place that fans, journalists and even players had begun to think Fowler didn’t have the stomach for.
He will not play in this week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, the site of his last (and only) victory before Sunday’s incredible spectacle, perhaps to rest up for the Irish Open at Royal County Down at the end of this month. Naturally the focus will be on host McIlroy that week.
McIlroy is still the man, at least until Fowler is able to summon his breathtaking tricks in that uncomfortable place -- Sunday afternoon in the heat -- more often than once every three years and four days. He must find the motivation, if that’s what he was lacking, or revert back to being a well-compensated sideshow to the McIlroy-vs.-Jordan Spieth main event.
The SI players’ poll comes only once a year.
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