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'Overrated' Fowler has last laugh in furious finish

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The most overrated player, at least according to a recent player poll, outdueled arguably the game’s most little-known player and the undisputed most complex player to win the PGA Tour’s biggest title.

Not bad for a tournament virtually devoid of the type of leaderboard that normally makes headlines heading into Sunday’s final turn.

A day that began with more questions then answers with 30 players within five strokes of the lead ended with an exclamation point that could be heard all the way to South Florida.

Rickie Fowler, who along with Ian Poulter was voted the game’s most overrated player in a recent player poll on, rallied from three strokes down to begin Sunday at The Players with a bold stretch to finish his round and what could only be described as a brash performance in a playoff that stretched to dusk.

“Going into the playoff, it was almost like nothing to lose,” said Fowler, who defeated Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner on the fourth extra hole with his sixth birdie of the week on the iconic 17th hole. “I was out of the golf tournament through 12 holes today, and we managed to fight our way back in.”

Fowler began his charge with a birdie at the 13th hole in regulation, although he said it was a clutch par at No. 12 that set things in motion. He would play the Stadium Course’s final six holes in 6 under par, including an eagle at No. 16, to grab the clubhouse lead.

After that he watched and waited. He waited for more than an hour as potential challengers ebbed and flowed before two (Garcia and Kisner) matched his total and two (Ben Martin and Bill Haas) came up just short.

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At one point it appeared officials would have to go with a split-tee start for the playoff. There hadn’t been this much uncertainty in Ponte Vedra Beach since the Tour initiated testing for performance-enhancing drugs in 2008.

In the first aggregate, three-hole playoff in Players history, Fowler and Kisner birdied the second overtime hole (No. 17) and finished tied at 1 under par, a stroke clear of Garcia. At the first sudden-death playoff hole (No. 17) Fowler hit his tee shot to 4 feet and converted the birdie putt for his second Tour victory in his 142nd career start.

That’s three tee shots at No. 17 all within 7 feet for birdie ... in the same day.

Not bad for a guy who received 24 percent of the vote as the game’s most overrated player, a dig that fueled Fowler, who was already trending in an impressive direction.

Although Fowler had been reluctant to dwell publicly on the poll this week, when asked if he thought it gave his man extra motivation, caddie Joe Skovron conceded the obvious, “I’m sure it did. It’s always going to.”

The victory moved Fowler into the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking and sets the table for a potential “Big Three” in golf with Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy fresh off similarly high-profile victories.

Kisner’s climb will not be nearly as meteoric, but his runner-up showing will elevate the little-known player’s status beyond golf circles. In the last month he’s played six playoff holes in 2 under par and is 0-for-2 in that stretch.

At last month’s RBC Heritage, Kisner birdied the first extra hole against Jim Furyk but lost that overtime frame with a par at the second.

“[Fowler] was 8 under in the last 10 holes?” Kisner asked. “That’s pretty good. Feel like what I did at Hilton Head and still didn’t win. Golf is a hard and cruel game.”

There was no need to remind Garcia of that truth.

For the week, El Nino battled through two putting grips and two different putters, one of which ended up in the garbage can, but came up short in his quest for his second Players title.

For a time, it appeared Garcia had finally been saved by his putting, a line your scribe never thought we would pen, with a 43-footer for birdie at No. 17 to move to 12 under. To put that in context, his longest putt for his previous 70 holes had been 27 feet.

But in the playoff, the Spaniard missed from 16 feet, 38 feet and 18 feet and had no interest in silver linings following his near miss.

“It’s just, that’s the way it is,” said Garcia, who closed with a 68. “Some days you feel better with the game, some days you don’t.”

It’s a unique level of perspective that Fowler could relate to. Characterized in some circles for a perceived lack of toughness and an inability to “close,” he turned to swing coach Butch Harmon in December 2013 and was the only player to finish in the top five in each of the four majors in 2014.

Still, the questions persisted and seemed to reach a crescendo as word spread about the player poll. Although Fowler has never shied away from the media spotlight, the 26-year-old seemed uncomfortable with the narrative. There is, after all, no easy way to deny being overrated without sounding overrated.

That is, until Sunday.

“I laughed at the poll,” Fowler said Sunday at TPC Sawgrass. “If there was any question, I think this right here [Players trophy] answers anything you need to know.”

He also solidified all one needs to know about The Players. Historically the Tour’s grand soiree has been won by the player who fist-pumps last on the 17th hole. The only difference this year is it took three trips to the island green.