ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – There was a time not that long ago when Rickie Fowler took stock in moral victories.
When he finished in the top five at all four major championships in 2014 it was undeniable evidence that his plan, his persistence, was leading him down the proper path.
He’d set out looking to harness his prodigious talent and narrow his competitive fire; that it would change his public perception – from stylistic trend setter to title collector – was simply the byproduct of the greater goal.
While his Grand Slam showing in ’14 proved to be a validation of the path he was on, it also brought into sharp focus what he was not – a regular champion.
“At the end of 2014 he had a good year, he felt good about himself and I used some tough love,” Fowler’s swing coach Butch Harmon recalled. “I said, ‘You really didn’t win anything.’ And it struck him a little bit and he was like, you’re right.”
As Fowler put the finishing touches on his one-stroke victory on Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, a statement triumph against the year’s deepest field, it was easy to forget that at this point last year he was still searching for that elusive element that always seemed to abandon him on Sunday.
Neither the best swings nor the sweetest putting strokes produce titles. The game is littered with players who don’t miss a shot on the practice range or putting green but come up empty time and time again when it counts on a Sunday afternoon.
Until last May, that esoteric element remained largely foreign to Fowler.
Superficially, Fowler was a star long before he won last year’s Players Championship with what was arguably the year’s most clutch performance on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass.
He birdied the 17th hole not once, not twice, but three times on his way to a playoff victory. It was the type of effort that stays with you.
“Winning breads confidence. We finished it off at The Players and then we finished it off at the Scottish [Open], and he’s closed so well,” said caddie Joe Skovron. “We always know that we’ve been here and done that. He’s just closed over and over and over and he just keeps feeding off of that.”
Fowler’s Players breakthrough begat his Scottish Open triumph, and then another at the Deutsche Bank Championship just as it seemed Jordan Spieth and Jason Day were poised to make it a two-man game.
Even the most cynical observer had to concede after his win in Abu Dhabi that Fowler had transformed himself, both on the golf course and in the public eye, into a player with much more substance than style.
That was not always the case.
It’s a striking juxtaposition considering that at this point last season an anonymous player poll dubbed Fowler the Tour’s most overrated.
The 27-year-old said the right things when asked about the poll, dismissing the slight with an easy smile and a disarming shrug, but deep down he burned.
If he began 2015 wanting to be known for more then just his flat-brimmed hats, he was now driven by one of sports most powerful motivators – a desire to prove others wrong.
Similarly, the building notion that golf was on the brink of a new “Big 3” era that sometimes overlooked Fowler – despite his regular successes – gave him a tangible benchmark beyond the more standard goals such as “improved wedge play and better game management.”
“He loved it, because all the talk was about them,” Harmon said. “You’re damn right he wants to be No. 1, but I don’t think it consumes him.”
It isn’t jealousy nor a sense of slight that drives Fowler to be considered among the game’s top players of Spieth, Day and Rory McIlroy, so much as it is wanting his turn at the trough.
Within the context of the current competitive landscape it’s simply addition by subtraction, if he beats the perceived Big 3 regularly Fowler will ascend to his seat at the table naturally, without questions or quantifiers.
“They are the three best or three highest-ranked players in the world. There’s no way around that and the three of them have played amazing,” Fowler said. “Yeah, I want to be a part of that crew. It would be a pretty good foursome.”
Sunday’s show in Abu Dhabi certainly sent a clear message. With Spieth fresh off an eight-stroke mauling of the field in Maui and McIlroy showing flashes of mid-season form on his way to a tie for third place, there was nothing subtle about Fowler’s intentions.
For his part, Spieth has largely dismissed the concept of a Big 3 as an overly broad simplification. Time, not trends, will ultimately decide if the game is poised on the precipice of a new golden age where a handful of charismatic champions regularly trade titles.
The world No. 1 was equally clear that Fowler’s place among the game’s best, however exclusive that group may be, is not up for debate.
“What Rickie is doing is fantastic. It's not surprising whatsoever,” Spieth said. “Rickie is going to win multiple events each year, I believe; so will Rory, so will Jason and hopefully I will do the same and there will be a few others. If that happens, then I believe the talk [about a Big 3 or 4] can start.”
For Fowler, however, there is only one way to gain membership to that club. Beating the world’s best at Abu Dhabi Golf Club or TPC Boston makes for a good season; doing it at Augusta National or Royal Troon makes for a great career.
Although Fowler followed his Grand Slam performance in 2014 with a pair of top-five finishes last year in the majors, there is still work to be done.
To Rickie, being mentioned in the same breath as Spieth, Day and Fowler, and ascending to world No. 1 (he climbed to fourth on Monday, his highest ranking), all hinges on filling that major void.
“Not being in the conversation motivated him just like the overrated part motivated him. He knows he hasn’t won a major and we’ve been working on that this year,” Harmon said.
It’s Fowler’s desire not to be satisfied, more so than a more consistent game or his burgeoning reputation as a closer, that transformed him into a four-time winner around the world in the last nine months. And it’s that drive that he’s confident will take him the rest of the way.