ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Against a field that included world No. 1 Jordan Spieth and No. 3 Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler took his game on the road to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and did what - until just last year - seemed exceedingly difficult for the PGA Tour’s millennial poster child.
With arguably the year’s deepest field assembled - apologies to the members-only gathering earlier this month in Kapalua - Fowler forced his way up the leaderboard with a third-round 65 and refused to yield on a marathon Sunday thanks to a combination of pinpoint drives, clutch putts and timely short-game dramatics.
It was, to put the performance in context, very much Spieth-like. Or maybe it was more of a McIlroy-esque effort. Either way, consider Fowler’s one-stroke victory, his fourth worldwide triumph since last year’s Players Championship, a conversation starter.
“From The Players on, just being in the situation, contention, Sunday, final round, against the best players in the world and just really believing and having the confidence that, hey, if I go hit the shots, I'm winning, no question,” said Fowler, who played his final two rounds (65-69) in 10 under par.
While debate over the exact members of golf’s new “Big 3,” or whether such delineations are even possible given the depth atop golf’s pyramid of influence these days, has escalated in recent months, the last three weeks have certainly framed a familiar narrative.
Spieth set the tone with his eight-stroke romp at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to start the year and Fowler’s victory against an equally strong field (both events awarded 52 World Rankings points to the champion) expanded the dialogue.
Fowler’s victory moved the trendy American to fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking, a career high for the 27-year-old and within mathematical striking distance of McIlroy in third place.
Not that it was entirely stress-free for Fowler, who went from desert-to-desert (the actual variety, not a bunker) on his way to a double-bogey 5 at the seventh hole on Sunday. Clinging to a one-stroke lead over Alejandro Canizares, Fowler responded by holing a 40-yard shot from a more familiar kind of sand (greenside bunker) at the eighth for eagle and a 3-up advantage.
“To me the key was the swing he made off of the tee at [No. 8], he moved on and made a good swing and gave us a chance to get home. The bunker shot was great, but the tee shot was where he didn’t let the tournament go the other way,” said Fowler’s caddie, Joe Skovron.
Fowler secured the game’s most menacing trophy when he chipped in for birdie from just off the green at the 17th hole moments after McIlroy had eagled the 18th hole to join Henrik Stenson in the clubhouse at 14 under.
It was a familiar scene for McIlroy, a four-time runner-up at the Abu Dhabi stop, as he played his last three holes in 3 under after a sluggish start to his final round that included three bogeys.
“I didn't hit a fairway until the ninth hole. Wasn't giving myself many chances, just to be 1 over par after nine there was a pretty good effort,” McIlroy said. “There was a couple long putts, a chip, an eagle at the last that got me a little closer to the lead, but as I said, I left myself just a bit too much to do after that front nine.”
The consolation prize for McIlroy, if he had any interest in such things, was that he clipped Spieth for “B” flight honors.
Although Spieth rallied after a sloppy second round (73), playing his final 36 holes in 8 under par, he never was in serious contention after Thursday and tied for fifth place at 11 under, a stroke behind McIlroy.
“We were off this week. I didn't make anything. I didn't quite give myself a lot of chances the first couple rounds,” said Spieth, who admitted to being fatigued after a whirlwind journey that’s included tournaments in six different countries the last two months.
Spieth’s relatively pedestrian start to the week aside, it bodes well for the game that Sunday’s final tally read like a who’s who in golf at the moment and served as yet another testament to the parity that’s currently driving the game.
Fowler’s work with swing coach Butch Harmon has made him more consistent off the tee and when he’s putting like he did over the final two days in Abu Dhabi (he rolled in 35 feet of putts through his first two holes in the final round to set an early tone), he forces comparisons to the established threesome of Spieth, Day and McIlroy whether he’s interested in membership in that party at this point or not.
Earlier this week, Fowler seemed to dismiss the idea that he deserved a seat at the “Big 3” table, figuring that distinction was reserved for those who have proven themselves where it counts the most – at a major.
“I may not be as ranked as high but I’m close,” Fowler said. “A major would help become a solid part of the talk.”
While Fowler’s desert defeat of the world’s Nos. 1 and 3 was impressive, it still doesn’t scratch the Grand Slam itch. But it certainly furthers the conversation about the game’s top cadre of players, however many names that list may include.