It’s an axiom of professional golf, noted in this space as recently as the last post, that no one ever won a tournament on Thursday. After the opening 18 at The Barclays not just the winner but the final automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will host the Europeans at Hazeltine next month were still up for grabs. Now the remaining 54 holes have been played, the first of the four FedEx Cup Playoff events has a champion, and the eight golfers who played their way onto the U.S. team are known. As possibility gave way to certainty golf fans were once again reminded that if nothing can be won on the first day of a tournament, much can be lost in the space of a few minutes on Sunday afternoon.
The big winner of the week was Patrick Reed, the cherry-cheeked Texan who won for the fifth time on Tour, but the first in more than a year and a half. The 26-year old led by one after the opening round, doubled his margin on Friday, and then slipped a shot behind Rickie Fowler after Saturday’s third trip around daunting Bethpage Black. In the final round Reed fell two behind with an early bogey on the par-3 3rd hole, but bounced back quickly with three birdies in the next four holes. That streak enabled him to catch Fowler at 10-under par as the final pair made their way to the most remote reaches of the non-returning layout.
They were greeted on every hole by large crowds of raucous fans who the CBS announcers estimated were rooting for the enormously popular Fowler by a margin of ninety to ten. But no one has ever accused Patrick Reed of lacking in ego, and a gallery cheering for the other guy is just the kind of atmosphere to fire him up. At the 2014 Ryder Cup matches in Scotland, Reed was one of only three Americans to finish with an overall winning record, earning 3 ½ of a possible 4 points. As the Americans tried vainly to mount a charge during the Sunday singles, Reed scored the first U.S. point with a 1-up victory over Henrik Stenson. He also made either a star or an ass of himself, depending on one’s point of view, by frequently goading the Scottish galleries during the three days of play.
At The Barclays Reed added another birdie at the 12th hole, and by the time he and Fowler reached the 16th tee he led by three shots with just three holes remaining. That allowed him to coast home and claim the title, vaulting him to the top of the FedEx Cup standings with three events remaining. The win also clinched his spot on this year’s Ryder Cup squad. Reed arrived on Long Island clinging to 8th place in the standings, with a number of golfers nipping at this heels. He left with a spot in the Tour Championship and on the Ryder Cup team guaranteed.
One of those chasing Reed was third round leader Fowler, who had said repeatedly that his goal was to play his way onto the team. With the lead at the start of the round and then that early two-shot bulge, he seemed well on his way to succeeding. Instead the 27-year old disappointed all those cheering fans by collapsing on the back nine. He bogeyed the 11th hole to drop out of the tie with Reed, and saw his deficit increase to two strokes when his fellow competitor birdied the 12th. Then with the tournament winding down Fowler hooked his tee shot on the 15th hole into the fescue, well wide of the fairway. He actually had a better lie there than did Reed, who had also misplayed his drive. But Reed’s second found the green, while Fowler dumped his approach into the front bunker. He was unable to get up and down from the sand, falling three behind with the resulting bogey.
Now desperate to go low, Fowler faced a 16th hole that had yielded just a single birdie all day. His tee shot again went left, and from the rough his approach came up short, once more into a greenside trap. His sand shot cleared the bunker but never reached the green, stopping in the heavy rough between the two. A poor chip skidded well past the hole, and the putt coming back never scared the cup. In less than twenty minutes the third round leader had followed a bad bogey with a worse double, wiping out any chance of victory. Perhaps worse, Fowler’s plunge down the leader board also eliminated his hopes of seizing one of the eight automatic Ryder Cup spots.
It’s certainly possible that Davis Love III could still make Fowler one of his captain’s picks. The first three of those won’t be announced until after the BMW Championship, so Fowler still has that tournament plus the upcoming Deutsche Bank Championship to make a positive impression. He will tee it up at TPC Boston as the defending champion at the latter event, having bested Henrik Stenson in a two-man duel down the stretch last Labor Day weekend. There, as was the case at Bethpage, the fans were overwhelmingly in Fowler’s corner.
But fans don’t swing the clubs or read the putts. As popular as Fowler is with both fans and fellow players, captain Love may look at his undistinguished record in team competitions. In two Ryder Cups and one Presidents Cup he’s won just 3 ½ of a possible 12 points, and has yet to win a singles match. The debacle at Bethpage also marked the fourth time that Fowler has started the final round of a PGA Tour event with the lead. From that position he has yet to seal the deal on Sunday. In the end Love’s choices will be his alone to make. But perhaps there’s a good reason why Rickie Fowler felt it so important to play his way onto this year’s Ryder Cup team.