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.