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Monday Scramble: Fowler gritty, popular in victory

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Rickie Fowler waves to the haters as he drives to the ATM; Sergio Garcia snaps his putter and still nearly wins; Tiger Woods has a good, bad and ugly week at The Players and more in this week's adrenaline-pumping edition of Monday Scramble: 

In most team sports, bulletin-board material lasts only a night or two. In football, snubbed draft picks often have to wait years to get even. 

Not in golf. Fowler let that unflattering player survey marinate for a few days, then he summoned – by far – the most audacious performance of his career to capture The Players on Sunday.

It was the most in-your-face! moment we've seen in years. Rickie said he “laughed” off the results and the overrated label, but don’t think for a minute that it didn’t bother him. One of the kindest and most popular players, called out by his peers for having only one Tour title? That’s a much-needed – and very public – wakeup call.

Given ample opportunity, he didn’t chirp back. And he didn’t gloat. Because that’s not his style. “I think this right here answers anything you need to know” was as close as he’d get to a see-I-told-you-so answer. On a day when we were reminded of all the good things our mothers taught us, Rickie let his actions speak louder than his words with a furious final hour that left all of us shaking our heads. That’s the ultimate response.

1. It’s OK, you can admit it: You too thought Fowler was an underachiever. All of that hype, all of that marketing muscle, all of those high finishes … and just one PGA Tour win to show for it. Compared to his elite peers, he didn’t stack up. That’s not being a hater. That’s looking at the facts and drawing a reasonable conclusion.

Rickie needed a win in the worst way. 

Entering last week's event, he was one of eight under-30 players inside the top 20 in the world. Seven of them had won at least twice in the past 18 months. Six had four or more worldwide titles, and the other, Billy Horschel, had three wins, including the $10 million FedEx Cup. 

Rickie's résumé still might not match the level of his popularity – to be fair, it might take many, many majors, because you'd have to look really hard to find someone who doesn't like the kid – but this was a massive step for a player who was the verge of getting lapped by his contemporaries.   

2. What does clutch look like? Probably something like this:

  • Rickie played Nos. 15-18 (in regulation) in 11 strokes – the fewest in tournament history
  • He pumped back-to-back 330-yard drives on the daunting 18th, including a Sunday-best 336-yarder in the playoff
  • He went 3-for-3 at the island 17th on Sunday – with all three tee shots within 7 feet
  • And he one-putted seven of his last eight holes

"I just hit that button," he said, confirming what many of us suspected: Fowler is one of the few guys on Tour with an extra gear.

3. Since Jordan Spieth missed the cut, is the Rory-Rickie rivalry back on? Can't keep track of all these desperate narratives.

4. Seriously, those who contended that McIlroy and Spieth would just run away and hide from the rest of the world-class players was wishful thinking. The game is too deep for that level of dominance, and we're better off for it.

All along the most likely scenario was Rory as the alpha dog, with studs like Spieth and Rickie and Jason Day and Patrick Reed and Hideki Matsuyama and Brooks Koepka all making life harder for him. If there's something wrong with that, then we don't want to be right. 

5. Sergio Garcia could have – should have? – won The Players in a rout.

His putting was so shaky that he brought three putters to Jacksonville. One wound up in a garbage, split into two pieces, after he snapped it over his knee following a woeful 32-putt performance on Friday that cost him more than four shots on the greens. Another was left back at his rental house.

So the lone surviving flat stick at least gave him a chance on the weekend for another win at Sawgrass. He finished the week first in strokes gained-tee to green and third in greens hit … but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that he missed 16 putts inside 10 feet, including five (!) from inside 5 feet.

“To even have a chance,” he conceded, “it was a big effort.” 

6. "Pathetic" is the only way to describe the golf fans who badgered Garcia during the final round of The Players. The Spaniard’s caddie called for extra security when his group made the turn, and Garcia said that he heard various quips “three or four times” every hole on the back nine, culminating on 17, when he was forced to back off because of the fans.

You don’t have to cheer the guy, but don’t be a fool and jeer him. Golf is better than that. Right?

7. In his first start since a surprising tie for 17th at the Masters, Woods broke par only once and tied for a career-worst 69th at The Players Championship. He described his week as a “mixed bag,” which sounds about right, because it was a combination of some really good moments (18 birdies!) and really bad (five doubles or worse, tying the most he’s had in a week as a pro!). And then there were the shots that weren’t just really bad, but horrible for even the casual player – the pair of tee shots that traveled less than 175 yards, and his shot Thursday on the par-3 eighth, which came up 40 yards short and weakly trickled into a hazard that shouldn't be in play.

Of the 75 players who made the cut, he was nearly last in driving accuracy (72nd, at only 50 percent) and 61st in greens hit (61 percent). Add it all up, and he was 69th in strokes gained-tee to green. After four weeks of work, not much has improved with his long game.

Tiger is in a predicament: He needs to play more tournaments, because that’s the only way he can truly assess his performance, but his game is so fragile at the moment that these low finishes threaten to torpedo whatever confidence he has earned on the range. We’ll see how he looks again in four weeks, but expectations remain very low. 

8. Here’s a scary thought: McIlroy hasn’t had anywhere near his A-game this year, and his worldwide finishes are 2-1-MC-9-11-4-1-8. 

It was another what-could-have-been week at Sawgrass for the world No. 1, who was third in strokes gained-tee to green and first in proximity to the hole but still mustered only 12 birdies. For the week, he was 60th in putting.

If he dials up Dave Stockton – multiple analysts noted that McIlroy was hitting up on his putts – then he could go on a tear soon. 

9. Speaking of putting ... How much longer is Adam Scott going to struggle with the long putter? He’s ranked 192nd (of 202 players) on Tour on the greens. At The Players he was 71st in putting, and in the final round he lost an incredible 6.2 shots on the green. Most ghastly was his three-jack from 3 feet on the ninth hole.

During the offseason he worked exclusively with the conventional-length putter, and he was confident enough to put it in play during his season debut. He abandoned the short stick after a few shaky rounds, but now he’s even worse with his old wand. 

At this point, why not work through his issues with the short putter? His confidence is shot with either method, and the Jan. 1 deadline is only getting closer.  

10. Surprised that Kevin Kisner gave another top-10 player all he could handle in one of the sport’s most pressurized arenas? Don’t be. Kisner certainly wasn’t. 

“Just because it’s a bigger stage doesn’t mean we’re going to suck all of a sudden,” he said, and so it was that a few weeks after pushing Jim Furyk to the brink at the Heritage, Kisner played near-flawless golf for the last 13 holes Sunday and came within a millimeter of becoming the third player to make Sawgrass the site of his first career title. Ultimately, he lost out to the better player, again, but you can be sure no pro wants to play straight-up against him now.

An aside: Only two spots separated No. 123 Kisner and No. 125 Woods on last week’s Official World Golf Ranking. Could their games be any further apart right now?

Rickie stays winning.

We can just picture the commercial now ... Hey, kids: If you have movie-star looks, a good-guy rep, a set of brass ones and a bank account that is $1.8 million richer, you too can have a makeout sesh on the 17th green with your model girlfriend!

This week's award winners ... 

Tweet of the Week: Ian Poulter vs. Ted Bishop, Round 2!

Tempted to say that everything is aligning for the other overrated player to win the U.S. Open ... but we all know that isn’t going to happen. 

It’s All in Your Head: Aaron Baddeley. Since 2003, no player has more water balls on 17 than Badds. He added two more on Friday – bringing his grand total to 13 – as he recorded an 8 on the hole. He has four more water balls than the next closest guy. 

Hitting for the Cycle: Kevin Na. Maybe he should consider moving to the Sunshine State – he top-tenned at Doral, Innisbrook, Bay Hill and TPC Sawgrass.

Tour Pros Live Better Than Us: A European Tour event on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. No one cared about what transpired there, of course, but the view from the players' lounge was pretty spectacular:

Awful Depth Perception: Kevin Na. First, he dropped his club when he thought he rinsed his shot on 17. It wound up 5 feet. Then, on the 13th, he nearly fell over after his tee shot and screamed, “GO!” It came to rest 18 feet away. He should probably see an optometrist.

Most Oblivious: Bubba Watson. Here's Chesson Hadley, who snuck into Bubba's autograph line and scored a signature ... not that Watson noticed ... 

Best Career Amateur in the World: Nathan Smith. This guy is unbelievable. The 36-year-old financial adviser teamed with former Walker Cup teammate Todd White to win the inaugural Four-Ball, his fifth career USGA title. He can book a trip to Royal Lytham.  

Yes, he should play more, because that’s the only way he can honestly evaluate his game, but that’s easy for me to say. He’s the single father with two young kids. He’s the one with the brittle body. He’s the creature of habit who prefers to play only where he’s enjoyed success. A pro for nearly two decades, he knows what works best for him.

From our position, it doesn't seem like teeing it up and getting beaten down will help his confidence. His short game is in decent order, but with so much time dedicated to that area it’s clear that he’s neglected his long game. He’s taking steps, however small, as this looks more and more like a lost year.