Safety Concern


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – If it were a football game, the kid with the Brett Favre swagger had suddenly and inexplicably decided to avoid contact and run out of bounds, short of the first down.

The kid who looks like he could stand in the pocket and just rifle it on a line 45 yards down field dumped it to his safety valve who then got flattened by the free safety.

Rickie Fowler laid up at No. 15 with just 210 yards to clear the water, 230 to the front and the easiest hole-location of the week on the par 5 that kicks off a thrilling finishing stretch. It was a stock 3-iron, maybe a humped up 4.
Rickie Fowler
Rickie Fowler reacts to a missed birdie putt on 16 Sunday. (Getty Images)
He had ball in hand because of the overnight rain so the lie was perfect, and, as ground reporter Billy Andrade pointed out, he’d been flushing it all day. The two other guys in his group, Camilo Villegas and Mark Calcavecchia, were both further away than Fowler and they both went for it without thought and without a problem.  

“They both walked by with their caddies,” Andrade said. “You should’ve seen their faces.”

They couldn’t believe Fowler wasn’t going for it. Minutes before I’d just made what I thought was a prescient comment but instead turned out to be an idiotic one: “Rickie Fowler doesn’t strike me as a lay-up kind of guy.”

I interviewed Rickie late last year. He’s likable, down-to-earth, polite and focused.  He grew up riding dirt bikes in Murietta, Calif. See the jump, throttle up and let it fly. Fearless.  

What’s so appealing about Fowler is that he doesn’t over analyze the game, doesn’t use video equipment, nor does he employ a famous swing guru, just an old-school range pro back home.  No sports psychologists, either, thank goodness.

See it. Hit it. Chase it.

In just a few months he’s created a brand, and the brand is gunslinger. He looks like Leonardo DiCaprio and plays like Lanny Wadkins – fast and loose, the antidote to the slow, dull grind that’s weighed down modern professional golf.

And that’s why, as my partner Brandel Chamblee pointed out, the decision at 15 was so completely out of character. Fowler had the upper hand, if only for a moment. He’d just birdied 13 and 14. Ahead, Hunter Mahan had just missed a 10-footer for birdie to remain at 15 under, tied with Fowler.

If Fowler could make birdie or eagle – and an eagle wasn’t out of the question with a bold second – he’d have the tournament by the throat. But Mahan, who flat out stripes it tee to green and finally dropped some putts, got his hands around it instead. He dead centered a 14-footer at 16 that pulsated like a bottom of the ninth homerun at Fenway.

For all the clowning and boozing that defines the 16th at TPC Scottsdale Thursday through Saturday, when those grandstands are packed on a serious Sunday in a tight, late afternoon battle, that hole can look and feel and sound like a major.

It did when Mahan poured in what turned out to be the deciding putt.

Back in the 15th fairway Fowler seemed oblivious to the noise. Now one behind, surely he’d go for it. But at 230 to the front and just 210 to clear, this should have been a no brainer. Instead it was a no debater. He’d made up his mind even before Mahan’s deuce at 16.   

“If I was a few back I may have gone for it,” he told Steve Sands after the round. It also must be pointed out that Fowler failed to go for the green in 2 on Saturday from a similar distance. He also made par.

If you hit it in the water, and the same goes for Michael Sim and Tim Clark and Bubba Watson, all of whom laid up with nothing to show for it earlier this year, you man up and tell the press, “I was trying to win the golf tournament.”

Who’s going to argue with that?

“The tournament’s not won on 15,” Fowler added. Why not? Why wait?

“I felt like I could get a wedge in there close and make birdie,” he explained.  

Yes, he’s very good with his wedges, but with 3- or 4-iron in hand and a perfect lie, barring a chunk, he’s either in a greenside bunker, just short with an easy chip, or on the green putting for eagle.

“It was the most shocking play I’ve seen in 2010,” said Chamblee.

If he had to do it over again, Fowler said he’d “just go back and hit the wedge,” which came up short of the green. I would hope upon further reflection he’d reconsider.

Simply put, he’s just too damn good to layup from 230 yards. From that spot, again with ball in hand, I’d wager that he’d make birdie seven of 10 times going for the green in two.

Fowler ultimately was forced to hole a nervy 5-footer just to save his par at 15. To his credit, he hit good irons to 16, 17 and 18 but couldn’t cash in.

“Great players win,” Mahan said. “I want to be a great player.”

So too does Fowler. And he has every chance.

But right now, the young man with that Brett Favre swagger could use someone like Bill Parcells or Mike Tomlin to pull him aside, look the rookie in the eye and say, “Never again. You have a chance to make something happen. When you get a wide open look like that, you cock that rocket arm and let it fly. If you get picked off you get picked off.

“You’re a winner. You’re going to be the best in the game. But I don’t ever want to see that again.