Anatomy of Fowler's record closing stretch

12 Mei 2015

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Rickie Fowler was 6 under par and five strokes behind leader Sergio Garcia with eight holes left to play at TPC Sawgrass. He was headed for a decent finish that included a nice paycheck, and his mom and sister were already headed to the airport.

Critics would soon be chirping that he was indeed overrated, as a recent magazine poll of anonymous peers suggested, not holding up his end of the hype machine inside the ropes for all the glitz and glamour that his life is outside them -- multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Puma, a garage full of bespoke luxury sports cars, model girlfriend, Leo DiCaprio looks.

“We said, ‘Hey, let’s make a few birdies,’” caddie Joe Skovron said. “I just wanted him to be the low guy in the clubhouse, because you never know what’s going to happen. But you never say, ‘Let’s go birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie.’”

In earnest, the greatest finish in the 41-year history of THE PLAYERS Championship, and one of the all-time classic endings ever in golf, was ignited by a par. Perhaps it was apropos the flashy 26-year-old would record the biggest victory of his career, a thrilling playoff finale, thanks in part to a result born out of pure grit.

Coming off a sloppy bogey from the middle of the fairway two holes earlier, Fowler had just pushed a 3-wood on the par-4 12th into the trees lining the right side when his ball slammed into a fairway bunker. He was only 124 yards from the flag but had a terrible lie.

“There was a lot of sand, so it made a pitch mark and then rolled out backwards,” Fowler said. “If the ball rolls forward you have a clearance where the ball creates a track so you can hit the ball forward, but you see a lot of the ball.

“When it rolled backwards, it was basically laying down in the sand, so I could -- barely half of the ball was above the sand, and I thought about trying to blade one out of there, and then we also thought about just blasting one out in the fairway. ... And then I was able to kind of figure out how to hit a punch pitching wedge, and it worked out perfectly.”

The ball bounded onto the green, and he two-putted to save par.

“(That shot) changed everything,” Skovron said. “He said, ‘I’m just gonna try to hit a shot.’ He almost had to thin it. If we go back to 5 under we don’t have a chance to do this. Then he just got going from 13 on.”

Let the fun begin.

The 181-yard 13th is one of the easiest holes at TPC Sawgrass -- it ranked 16th during Sunday’s final round -- but with water left of a left pin, danger is never far away. Ball-striking has always been one of the most reliable parts of Fowler’s game, however, and he stuck his tee shot pin high, the ball settling 12 feet from the flag. It was just his second birdie of the day.

Another key par followed, this time at the toughest hole on the course, the par-4 14th, where Fowler again hit his tee shot right and into the rough. The lie was squirrely, but he slashed it out and onto the putting surface to set up another two-putt par.

Now came the video-game finish. 

First, though, you have to go back to last August when he had a chance to win his first career major at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. Tied for the lead late on Sunday, he made a critical mistake on the par-3 14th, hanging a 5-iron out to the right and failing to get up and down. He finished two strokes back of winner Rory McIlroy and though he would end the year by becoming just the third player ever to finish in the top five of all four majors in the same season, it was just the kind of ammo the naysayers pointed to when citing his shortcomings. But the loss also made an impression, and it stung.

“It beat us up after the PGA,” Skovron said. “We thought we were going to win that tournament. I wholeheartedly believed it, he wholeheartedly believed it. We didn’t win it. But that’s what golf is. That’s what makes this so much more special. To do it (like this), it doesn’t get any better than that.”

And down the stretch at THE PLAYERS no one was better than Fowler, particularly on the par-5 16th, always a tough hole by Fowler’s own admission but where he would hit his best shot of the week when it mattered the most. In between clubs on his second from 243 yards into the wind out of the left, over water and sand, Fowler took a little off his 3-wood from a hanging lie in the fairway and striped it to 3 feet.

“(The ball) had stayed in the fairway and it gave us the option to lay up or go for it,” Fowler said. “I knew by going for it I had to live with the consequences if I didn’t pull it off. At that point I knew I had a legitimate chance at winning the tournament.”

A lot of tournaments have been won and lost on the island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass, but Fowler was in a groove, playing the best golf his longtime caddie has ever seen. He is also one of the best short-iron players in the game.

Of the seven times Fowler played the par 3 between regulation and a playoff with Garcia and Kevin Kisner, he birdied it five times, including on the second-to-last hole of regulation.

“I had perfect numbers there for kind of a choked-down gap wedge,” Fowler said. “I've played that pin, I've played the hole well, so just picked a line a little bit left of the target or left of the pin and hit a perfect shot, hit it right where I was looking.

“And I knew the putt there. I made one in 2012 from above the slope, but I knew coming down from about pin high or just past, it'll break left. And then, where my putt was, it actually goes back right. So I felt confident with that." 

His confidence was in full brim on 18, too, despite one of the most daunting tee shots in the game with water left and trees right on the dogleg par 4. But from Friday on, Fowler was locked in on TPC Sawgrass’ finishing hole. 

Sunday, he piped one 330 yards over the corner of the water, leaving just 116 yards in. Fowler’s next shot landed 15 feet from the hole to set up his final birdie of regulation.

“I really couldn't have hit one better, both in regulation and in the playoff,” Fowler said of the tee shot on 18. “Derek (Fathauer) gave me a good look at the putt on 18 (in regulation) as he was a little outside me, and he was a little bit to the left, but gave me a good look at it as far as what the ball was going to do by the hole. All I could do was hit it, try to hit it with good speed and see what happened.”

Fowler played Nos. 15 through 18 in regulation in 5 under, just 11 strokes total, to set a new low for the score on the final four holes at TPC Sawgrass in a single round in tournament history. Previously, seven players had finished with a score of 12 on the final four holes. 

He also became the first winner on the PGA TOUR to play the final four holes in 5 under in the final round of any event since the TOUR began tracking hole-by-hole scores in 1983.

“I was kind of looking at just getting a good finish,” Fowler said. “I was not exactly thinking I was going to win this thing, but you never know what’s going to happen with the closing holes here. Guys can move forward or backward pretty quickly.”

No one knows that better than Fowler.

May 11, 2015
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM