Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 7, 2019

Rickie Fowler’s Gutsy Win Quiets His Critics

A decade ago, when he turned pro at the age of twenty after playing on two winning Walker Cup teams and being ranked as the top amateur golfer in the world for nine months, Rickie Fowler was widely expected to become one of the most popular and successful members of the PGA Tour. The first expectation was quickly met and remains true today. His willingness to engage with people outside the ropes at tournaments won him scores of supporters, and his moptop haircut and brightly colored clothing, including a preference for orange on Sundays from his brief time as a collegiate golfer at Oklahoma State, made him hugely popular among young fans. But success commensurate with his burgeoning fan base has proven harder to achieve. After ten years on the Tour, the now thirty-year-old Fowler came to the Waste Management Phoenix Open last weekend with just four PGA Tour titles on his resume.

His first two wins came in playoffs, at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012 over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points, and at the Players Championship in 2015 over Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner. Later that same year Fowler outlasted Henrik Stenson at the Deutsche Bank Championship by a single stroke. He finally won with some room to spare early in 2017, posting a four-shot victory at the Honda Classic.

Make no mistake, four wins in a decade is not a bad career on the Tour. And with multiple endorsements based on his overall popularity, the next few generations of the Fowler family shouldn’t have to worry about putting food on the table. But four victories, none of them majors, was not what was expected of Fowler when he turned pro.

There have been tantalizing glimpses of greatness, like in 2014 when he finished in the top five at all four majors, a run that included runner-up spots at both the US Open and the Open Championship. But that spark of promise was quickly extinguished when he failed to post a top ten and missed three cuts at golf’s most prestigious events over the next two seasons.

Most concerning for Fowler’s many fans has been his repeated inability to close out a tournament on Sunday. Nowhere has that weakness been more painfully exposed than at the TPC Scottsdale, home of the Tour’s annual bacchanal, also known as the Waste Management Phoenix Open. In 2016, he began the final day tied for second with Hideki Matsuyama. When 54-hole leader Danny Lee stumbled early, Fowler appeared in control of the event until he hit his drive on the short par-4 17th through the green and into the pond behind it. Fowler made that ill-timed swing with his father and grandfather watching, neither of whom had ever been present for one of his victories. Forced into a playoff with Matsuyama, Fowler hooked his tee shot on the same hole into the hazard, handing the victory to his fellow competitor. He cried unashamedly in the media room afterwards as he expressed regret for letting his family down.

Then last year Fowler started the third round tied for the lead and finished play on Saturday with a flourish, recording birdies on each of the last three holes to shoot a 4-under par 67, good enough for solo first place heading into Sunday. Fowler would have needed to match that score in order to join Gary Woodland and Chez Reavie in the eventual playoff won by the former, but instead on the very part of the golf course where he had sizzled on Saturday he instead fizzled in the final round. He pulled his drive into the lake left of the par-5 15th hole, missed the green left at the par-3 16th, and sent yet another tee ball into the hazard at the 17th. The three miscues led to three straight bogeys and sent Fowler tumbling down into a tie for eleventh, six shots adrift of the eventual winner as one more Sunday went from promising to pedestrian in just a few errant swings.

That history explains why there was no great surge of anticipation when Fowler completed his first trip around TPC Scottsdale at this year’s tournament in just 64 strokes, good for a tie for first with Justin Thomas and Harold Varner. More attention was paid to world number four Thomas, who has nine wins including a major at the age of twenty-five. Even when he closed his second round with four straight birdies to shoot 65 and edge one shot ahead of Thomas, his good friend and housemate for the week, Fowler himself acknowledged “we still have a long way to go.” But when his lead swelled to four shots over Matt Kuchar on the strength of another 7-under par 64 on Saturday, most of Fowler’s fans and even many skeptics started to believe that this year he’d finally beat the last round demons that have so often bedeviled him, nowhere more so than at TPC Scottsdale.

A double-bogey at the long par-4 5th hole, where Fowler sent his approach into the desert well left of the green and needed three more strokes to get his ball on the putting surface might have been cause for alarm, but Kuchar bogeyed the hole as well so only made up one shot. By the time Fowler made his first birdie on a cold and wet day at the 10th hole, the six-footer that he rolled in expanded his lead to five shots over Branden Grace, who was charging up the leaderboard in the group ahead, and six over the struggling Kuchar.

Then, with just eight holes to play, disaster struck. Fowler’s approach at the 11th hole came up short of the green. His chip shot was struck far too hard, sailing across the green, down an embankment and into a lake. With the penalty stroke Fowler was looking at his fifth shot after dropping a ball on the slope. But while he walked up to the green to study where he wanted to land his chip, the ball he had dropped gave way to gravity and slid down the closely mown grass and into the water. Rules official Slugger White advised Fowler that once he made his drop the ball was considered in play, meaning a second penalty stroke was assessed. So it was his sixth shot that finally found the green, and a triple-bogey seven on his scorecard when Fowler sank the ensuing putt.

No doubt dazed by his sudden misfortune he promptly bogeyed the next hole, even as Grace was making back-to-back birdies. In a matter of minutes, the five shot advantage had turned into a one shot deficit, and another disastrous Sunday appeared about to be added to Fowler’s PGA Tour resume. But the too-familiar script was tossed when he instead displayed a resiliency that critics had come to assume Fowler simply lacked. At the 15th, he split the fairway with his drive, then smashed a fairway metal from 251 yards onto the green of the par-5. That set up a two-putt birdie that brought him even with Grace.

Then at the 17th it was the South African who hooked his drive into the water, leading to a bogey. When Fowler’s tee shot at the drivable par-4 rolled to a stop on the putting surface he breathed a sigh of relief, turned to his caddie and smiled. From there it was another two-putt birdie to put himself two clear heading to the home hole. His entire family, including his father and grandfather, were waiting for him there. At the end of this Sunday there were no tears, just cheers for Rickie Fowler’s fifth Tour win, and for the renewed promise of the career he might yet forge.


  1. Really enjoyed this. Despite all the pressure, Rickie did not seem to get rattled and his putting – which is usually the first to go when things go south – remained solid. Except for the fact that he knows he has a future in entertainment, and doesn’t necessarily need the golf gig, he would be a major force. My opinion. He’s great for the game!




    • Thanks very much Don. Anyone who’s seen the number of young kids dressed in orange, complete with a Puma logo cap, at a PGA Tour event would agree that Fowler is great for the game. If perchance he could add a major this year he would silence all the doubters once and for all.


      Michael Cornelius

  2. Excellent as usual.

    • Thanks Chuck.

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