Fowler bolsters profile with signature win at Players

By John FeinsteinMay 12, 2015, 3:15 pm

There will be a lot said and written in the coming weeks about what Rickie Fowler “proved” by winning The Players Championship on Sunday in dramatic fashion.

There will be talk about how he proved those players who anonymously labeled him as one of the two most overrated players in golf (Ian Poulter being the other) were wrong. There will be those who will say he’s now re-established himself as one of the game’s young guns and as one of the top 10 players in the world – his Official World Golf Ranking of No. 9 backing that up.

The most important thing Fowler proved is something he proved more than 18 months ago: He doesn’t want to go down as golf’s version of Anna Kournikova. You remember Kournikova: She was the first of the stunning blonde Russian tennis players who was good enough to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1997 and was briefly ranked in the top 10.

But, Kournikova turned out to be a jock version of Narcissus – the famous prince who fell so in love with his reflection that the gods turned him into a flower. Instead of turning Kournikova into a flower, the tennis gods turned her into a hacker. She never won an individual title.

Even so, Kournikova was the most popular female tennis player in the world for years and made millions off the court through sponsorships and modeling.

Once upon a time, it appeared that Fowler could become golf’s answer to Kournikova. He had teeny-bopper good looks and a unique fashion style that quickly made him wealthy, long before he won on the PGA Tour. Of course he also had plenty of game and there were flashes – just as with Kournikova’s Wimbledon run – that proved it.

In 2010, Cory Pavin made him a surprise Ryder Cup captain’s pick, and then Fowler rallied from 4 down in his singles match by birdieing the last four holes to steal a half-point from Edoardo Molinari.



He finally broke through on the PGA Tour in dramatic fashion when he beat Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points in a playoff at Quail Hollow in 2012, flagging his second shot to the difficult par-4 18th to set up a winning birdie.

Fowler was only 23 at the time and it seemed likely that the win – especially that kind of win – would be a springboard for him.

But even though there were solid performances over the next 18 months, there was nothing that lived up to that win or the hype, the commercials, the screaming girls and becoming a one-name player – “Rickie!” – without the portfolio that usually accompanies that title.

By the end of 2013, after Fowler had failed to win again or contend in any of that year’s majors, there were those who thought Fowler might be an image-is-everything athlete. It would have been easy for Fowler to accept that fate: He had made millions and was playing well enough that he could continue to make more than enough money as a reasonably good golfer for years to come.

Fowler didn’t want that. He decided it was time to buckle down and be a golfer first and a corporate salesman later. He hired Butch Harmon as his teacher and listened to what Harmon was telling him about his swing, about his work ethic and about his ability to compete under pressure.

He also cut his hair and got rid of the long-billed cap that had become his signature.

RickieFowlergolf.com became secondary to Rickie Fowler the golfer.

The new teacher and new approach paid off in 2014 – not with a victory but with remarkably consistent play in the majors – becoming the third player in history (the other two are named Woods and Nicklaus) to finish in the top five in all four majors in the same year.

He chased McIlroy down the stretch in Liverpool at the British Open and was right in the middle of the after-dusk finish at the PGA Championship in Louisville.

At 25, he had shown the world that there was substance behind the marketing campaign. The question, as 2015 dawned, was whether he was ready to take the next step.

He hasn’t yet – he still needs a major title to put himself into golf’s pantheon – but the way he won The Players is about as close as you can get. It was certainly memorable. The way he played the last six holes (four birdies and an eagle) was remarkable enough. But beating Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia in the playoff by twice making birdie at No. 17 was the sort of under-pressure playing that will be talked about for years.

More important than that, it is a memory that Fowler can summon the next time he’s in position to win a major, which may come very soon.

Fowler insisted after his win that he had “laughed” about the player poll that ranked he and Poulter as the two most overrated players in the game. Fowler said on Friday that he was “happy” about the poll because it motivated him.

Clearly, that was true. The argument can be made that no one should take an anonymous poll of any kind seriously. It’s very easy to take shots at people when you don’t have to stand behind what you’re saying. It’s to Fowler’s credit that he used the poll, however specious it might have been, to set up the best weekend of his career.

It’s worth remembering that golfers peak at different times. Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth were 21 when they won their first majors; Jack Nicklaus and McIlroy were 22. Arnold Palmer was 28; Phil Mickelson was 33 and Ben Hogan was 34. At 26, Fowler still has plenty of time to win that first major and then win some more.

Golf could be entering an era that will be quite different than the Woods era. Woods was a dynasty, the favorite every time he teed it up for most of 12 years. With McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler and Jason Day all ranked in the top 10 well before turning 30, and with Woods and Mickelson still around hoping for one last great moment, there is no telling what the next few years will bring.

Chances are, a lot of it will be spectacular. Fowler was certainly that on Sunday.

Getty Images

McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

Getty Images

Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

Getty Images

Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

Getty Images

McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.