AKRON, Ohio – Coming down the stretch of his practice round Tuesday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Rickie Fowler found himself in a familiar position: back against the wall, needing to deliver. Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer had Fowler and Jimmy Walker 1-down after 16 holes, with pride – not to mention some pocket change – on the line.
Needing to come up with the goods, Fowler calmly delivered a birdie on the penultimate hole and another on the final green, a curling 20-footer that drew a wry smile from Spieth, who then poured in a birdie of his own to draw the match.
Fowler’s final putt was center-cut, and he walked it in with the confidence of someone whose game has reached a new level, whether the stakes are a trophy or a friendly wager. The transformation from a player burdened with expectation and untapped potential to one who now regularly delivers in the clutch has been both quick and profound.
While the breakthrough came with his other-worldly finish to win The Players Championship, Fowler quickly followed that up with a victory at the Scottish Open. With a runner-up finish at the Quicken Loans National, he is back to No. 5 in the world rankings, tied for his career best.
After beginning this season with the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship as his lone win in 141 PGA Tour starts, Fowler has quickly vaulted into the game’s upper echelon.
“Really since The Players, my comfort has jumped another level or five or so,” Fowler said. “Just kind of being in that situation the last four, five, however many holes and knowing that I can pull out the good swings and make putts and make stuff happen. So it’s fun to know I have that.”
Like Fowler, Jason Day entered the season in the highly unscientific category of “players who probably should win more,” with two victories in 151 PGA Tour starts. He added a third with a playoff victory at the Farmers Insurance Open in February, then rallied to win the RBC Canadian Open in his most recent start.
Only days removed from heartbreak at the Open Championship, Day birdied each of his final three holes in Canada to finish one shot clear of the pack. While he has been a perennial contender in recent years, the Aussie shared Tuesday that his mindset was different during the final round at Glen Abbey.
“It was funny, that Sunday, I was a lot more calm,” he said. “I just felt different that day compared to any other Sunday where I was in contention, whether it was a major or a normal PGA Tour event. And I just, for some reason, I just knew everything’s OK. No matter what, keep plugging along.”
His explosive celebration after his 72nd-hole birdie evoked comparisons with Tiger Woods, and Day remains eager to build upon the momentum that collecting trophies can create.
“It’s obviously powerful to draw on, but on top of it, you’ve got to go out and execute the shot,” he said. “Doing stuff like that is not easy. It may look easy, but it’s not easy to do.”
Winning begets winning, especially on the highest level. Rory McIlroy had gone nearly a year without a victory since switching to Nike before breaking through at the Australian Open in November 2013, a victory that helped propel him to a four-win season in 2014. Spieth broke a similar victory drought last year in Oz, and he has since reached nearly unprecedented heights.
Whether Fowler or Day ascend to that stratosphere remains to be seen, but the pair is clearly benefiting from one of the game’s most precious commodities – the confidence boost that only comes from a spot in the winner’s circle.
Day narrowly missed out on the playoff at St. Andrews when he left his final birdie putt short, and he flashed back to that stroke when faced with a similar putt in Canada. The weight of the situation was evident, as was his relief when that particular shot found the target after so many prior near-misses.
“To turn around so quick and hole the putt on the 72nd hole at the Canadian Open, I mean it was a good way to turn around,” he said. “Know that I can do it and show people that I can do it, and stomp my foot on the ground and say, ‘No, that’s enough. I can get it done.’”
Day and Fowler have long had the game to contend against the world’s best. But confidence is fickle, and trophies are hard to come by.
Each buoyed from recently “getting it done,” their confidence is at an all-time high – just in time for one of the Tour’s most lucrative fortnights.