Needing a birdie to force a playoff, Clark walked away with a par and a very nice payoff. A week later, Michael Sim submerged to the same strategy under strikingly similar circumstances at Torrey Pines: another par-5 18th with a green guarded by water, another one-stroke deficit, a 240-ish second from the fairway and another runner-up check.
Rickie Fowler, the stylish young hotshot who bears more than a passing resemblance to Lanny Wadkins, left mouths agape when he backed off a mere 210-yard carry into TPC Scottsdale’s 15th last Sunday. So much for that pedal-to-the-metal mentality, or just plain mettle. Little Rickie may become a big winner someday, but for right now, he looks like any other Tour pro minding his own bank account.
That’s the whole point here. Sim and Fowler own two of the game’s brightest futures but must also deal with the expectations that come with such promise. Clark, meanwhile, has piled up more earnings without a victory than any player in PGA Tour history, so none of the three needed help understanding the importance of a win while mulling the ramifications of risk vs. reward.
Were they playing for second? Of course not. It’s their inability to think clearly that scares me. Clark, Sim and Fowler all were victimized by the convenient mentality, tricked into letting their fear overrule their sense of better judgment. Safety comes first when you’re in first, not when you trail. Please consult the mirror before arguing otherwise.
Laying up, particularly from distances you wouldn’t think twice about Friday afternoon, does not mean you’re not trying to win, nor does an oversized portion of aggression guarantee anything but trouble. David Toms claimed the 2001 PGA Championship with a huge assist from caution. How’s my man Jean Van de Velde doing? Phil Mickelson got beat up for years because he consistently confused green-light opportunities with the yellows and reds.
What Clark, Sim and Fowler did succumb to is the failure to recognize good from great. Great players take chances. Great players understand that you do whatever it takes. Great players know the safe option isn’t always the smart option. Most of all, great players aren’t afraid to fail.
John Hawkins appears on Golf Central every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and on the Grey Goose 19th Hole every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.
Fowler carries two hybrid clubs and a 3-wood but apparently, the holster is empty. “If I was a couple [of shots] back and thinking I needed to make a few birdies coming in, I would have gone for it,” he rationalized. “Being one back at the time and putting a wedge in my hand from 80 yards, a lot of times I’ll make birdie there.”
Hey dude, did it ever cross your mind that you could make an eagle? You’re Rickie Freakin’ Fowler, the New Kid in Town, the second coming of Lanny. You wear orange pants, for crying out loud –you’ve gotta have guts. You’re supposed to go down swinging, not while hedging your bets. The idea is to send a message loud and clear: You play to win and expect nothing less than clutch, heroic performances from yourself.
You believe, Rickie, because that’s what champions do. Better safe than sorry? Sometimes, they mean the same thing.