CHARLOTTE, N.C. – “Trust it Rickie,” caddie Joe Skovron whispered in a tone loud enough to be heard across Quail Hollow’s 18th-green amphitheater.
As if a 23-year-old has reason to second-guess. Sure he’d heard the drumbeat of doubt, the type of overtly critical analysis manifest with unrequited expectations. As recently as last Wednesday Rickie Fowler had reminded the media masses that he’d be a fifth-year senior at Oklahoma State had he not traded dorm life for a day job on the PGA Tour.
On Sunday Fowler painted Quail Hollow’s “Green Mile” OSU orange, a walk-off win fit for a phenom with equal parts drama, heartbreak and heroics, the latter coming courtesy a wedge shot at the first extra hole that nestled to 4 feet for his PGA Tour breakthrough.
It was apropos that a victory that seemed so long in the making would go to extra innings. That the collection of Tour frat brothers lingering about the 18th green following the one-hole playoff was a testament to Fowler’s popularity, which always ran deeper than his mass marketing exterior.
“It’s so great that Rickie won,” said Gerry McIlroy, notable because he is the affable father of Rory, who – along with D.A. Points – Fowler defeated in extra frames after finishing 72 holes tied at 14 under.
Now that’s appeal. And it shows how those within the game viewed Fowler’s rise, which was criticized in some circles for its languid pace. So much so that out of the gates on Wednesday Fowler was poised with a ready answer when asked about his winless schneid.
“I won the (2011) Korean Open,” he smiled.
In retrospect the kid’s redirect was a telling precursor to his Wells Fargo victory, having gone head-to-head with McIlroy in a Sunday shootout last year in Korea.
But not many figured this was Rickie’s week. Not when he began the final turn two strokes behind a cruising Webb Simpson with the likes of McIlroy, who won this event in 2010 for his maiden Tour tilt, and Nick Watney laying in wait.
But when Simpson faltered out of the gates, making the turn in 1 over, it quickly became the Rickie & Rory show when Fowler birdied the 12th to grab a share of the lead and he moved clear of the field with a two-putt birdie at No. 15.
Yet even then there were doubts when he went from bunker to bunker at the 16th to drop out of the lead with the rest of the “Green Mile” looming. When his slicing, downhill 20-footer for birdie at the last slid by it seemed Fowler had come up short, again.
From a small room in the sprawling Quail Hollow clubhouse Fowler watched his fortunes change in rapid order. First Points pushed his approach right of the last green and made his first bogey of the weekend and McIlroy forced the second playoff in as many years in Charlotte when his 16-footer for birdie missed wide.
In the playoff it was all Fowler. A drive to 133 yards, a bold 51-degree wedge to 4 feet, a birdie on a hole that yielded just five sub-par scores on Sunday, a breakthrough so long in the coming.
“Rickie and his caddie picked a good club. They picked a club that was either going to go there or it might go in the creek,” said Points, who closed with a 71 for his best finish since his victory last year at Pebble Beach. “To hit that shot, that was the kind of club he needed. The shot he hit was spectacular.”
Quintessential Fowler – colorful and entertaining.
Although Fowler had said he wasn’t bothered by those who doubted his ability to win, on Sunday, with a chalice secured, he relented.
“There’s definitely some relief,” said Fowler, whose closing 69 featured six birdies and three bogeys. “There were times when I felt like I pushed a little bit, whereas this week I sat back and waited for it. . . . There are a lot of people who said I’d never win so it’s nice to shut them up a little bit.”
No one has ever doubted McIlroy, who despite opening with two bogeys in his first four holes seemed destined for his second Wells Fargo title until a sloppy bogey at the 17th hole.
In his first tournament since the Masters the Ulsterman showed the kind of power and precision that will make him a favorite at this week’s Players Championship, and beyond.
“To come back after three weeks off and get myself in the mix. I gave myself a chance to win, which was nice,” said McIlroy, whose runner-up showing pushed him back atop the world golf ranking. “It gives me a bit of confidence going into next week.”
One player who won’t be overflowing with confidence when he wheels down TPC Sawgrass Lane will be Tiger Woods, who endured just his eighth missed cut as a professional following rounds of 71-73 and is now heading to a golf course that has been anything but friendly confines.
Woods hasn’t finished the week the last two years at The Players, withdrawing in 2010 and 2011 with injury, has contended just once on the Stadium Course in the last decade and is searching for his first win there since 2001.
“First wins,” however, are no longer a concern for Fowler, who now has substance to go with all that style.
“It was going to be sooner or later and I’m just glad it was sooner,” said Ben Crane, who joined Fowler on the 18th green for the victory celebration. “I wouldn’t have wanted it to start bothering him.”
Skovron had it right, we just had to trust it.