Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 10, 2015

Fowler’s Fantastic Finish Caps A Players For The Ages

Every year at this time the debate is renewed. As the finest golfers in the world converge on Ponte Vedra Beach the media hordes arriving in their wake pester the players with the question of whether The Players Championship should be considered a major tournament. The answers run the gamut, and since the current four majors, the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship, and PGA Championship hold their rank based on general consensus rather than by order of any governing body, that lack of agreement ensures that at least for the foreseeable future the number of men’s majors will remain at four.

Players and pundits opposed to adding a fifth major usually cite tradition, though for a sport that traces its origins to the 15th century, the very idea of major tournaments is relatively recent and in the short time such events have been recognized their number has varied. A century ago when gentlemen of proper breeding looked askance at professional golfers, the two Opens were joined by the U.S. and British Amateur Championships as the four primary tournaments every year. After World War II the rise of the PGA Tour relegated the two Amateur events to the sidelines; and for a time in the 1950s the long since defunct World Championship of Golf was viewed as a major for the simple reason that it offered a purse ten times that of any other tournament. The Open Championship languished for a number of years due to a lack of participation by the top American pros, and it really wasn’t until Arnold Palmer made a point of playing the Open starting in 1960 that the current four majors became clearly identified.

While The Players Championship may not be considered a major, it offers fans one of the strongest fields of the year, something that none of the four premier events can claim. The Masters is an invitational, and the lords of Augusta National insist on a starting field of fewer than 100 players; while also traditionally inviting all former champions, inevitably including many players who are no longer serious contenders. The two Opens are just that, open to any golfer professional or amateur, who has a sufficiently low handicap and can run the gauntlet of a multi-round qualifying process. Because it is run by the PGA of America, the field for the final major of the year always includes a number of club professionals who are entitled to their moment in the sun but who aren’t going to take home the Wannamaker Trophy.

In contrast the field for The Players is based on winning, money lists, world rankings and FedEx Cup points, all criteria that guarantee a deep field in which any number of players can be considered legitimate contenders when play begins on the Thursday before Mother’s Day. That was proven like never before at this year’s tournament. Chris Kirk, who won last year’s Deutsche Bank Championship in the FedEx Cup playoffs, held the 54 hole lead at 10-under par. But there were 16 golfers within three shots of his lead. The largest final round comeback in the history of The Players is five strokes, and 30 players, fully forty percent of those who made the cut, were within that range.

The jammed leader board presented a challenge for the Golf Channel and NBC, and for much of the day viewers at home saw almost nothing of Rickie Fowler. That’s understandable since while the popular 26-year old began the final round three back of Kirk, he promptly bogeyed the first hole and there was just a single birdie on his card when he came to the 13th tee, still one over for the day. With as many as five players tied for the lead early in the round and several more just a stroke or two behind, there was little time to focus on those further adrift.

But the cameras quickly found Fowler once he began a shot-making clinic down the final holes of the back nine. A 12-foot putt for birdie at the par-3 13th got him back to even for the day. Two holes later a 9-iron approach set up another birdie at the 15th. His drive at the par-5 16th found the right side of the fairway, 238 yards from the flag. Fowler choked down on a 3-wood and launched an approach that flirted with the water to the right of the green, landing no more than two yards from disaster. But the ball then kicked to the left and rolled near the cup, setting up a tap-in for an eagle three. At the island green 17th his wedge came to rest seven feet from the cup, which his putt quickly found. Then at the 18th Fowler blasted a drive 331 yards down the fairway, setting up a short iron approach that settled hole high, some 17 feet away. He played the putt to swing to the right, and his ball curled perfectly into the hole. With that Fowler had played the final four holes, an aggregate par of 16, in just 11 strokes.

That performance set a tournament record for those four holes and left Fowler at 12-under par, two shots clear of the field. But with seven pairings still on the course he had more than an hour to wait and wonder if someone else could match or even surpass his number. While he waited perhaps Fowler thought about the anonymous survey of Tour pros, the results of which were announced just before The Players. With 24% of the vote each, Fowler and Englishman Ian Poulter were tied as the “most overrated” players on the Tour.

The survey results carry more than a little hint of jealousy. Fowler burst onto the Tour as a 20-year old in 2009, and he is enormously popular especially among younger fans, a demographic that the PGA Tour sorely needs to attract. That popularity has enriched Fowler with endorsement contracts, despite the fact that prior to this week he had just a single PGA Tour victory. But he also finished in the top-5 at all four majors last year, with runner-up performances at both Opens; more than ample evidence that Fowler has plenty of game.

He needed all of that game on this Mother’s Day, as first Sergio Garcia and then Kevin Kisner matched his 12-under total. The three engaged in a three hole aggregate playoff, with Fowler and Kisner recording 1-under par tallies on the 16th, 17th and 18th holes, one better than Garcia. Finally in sudden death, Kisner missed a birdie try on the 17th from outside ten feet. From four feet Fowler’s own birdie putt for the win was never in doubt, closing a day in which he played the final ten holes in eight strokes under par to best as good a field on as tough a course as the pros will play all year.

For a tournament that’s not a major it was one major day of golf. For a player who’s supposedly overrated it was one awesome display of ability and nerve. The Players Championship and Fowler both started the week being singled out for what they lacked. By Sunday evening that made The Players and Rickie Fowler a perfect fit.

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