The 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass has provided plenty of fear and loathing over the years during the Players Championship, for obvious reasons. It is a green surrounded by water.
But also, quite frankly, that famed hole offers a pretty large target for skilled golfers who are the best in the world. And yet, if the par-3, 135-yard hole is so benign, why hasn’t everyone dominated it the way Rickie Fowler did in 2015?
“I don’t think it’s that easy,’’ said Joe Skovron, Fowler’s longtime caddie, chuckling at the idea that his boss made it appear that way. “I mean, he was doing the same thing over and over, putting the same swing on it. The wind switched a
little but he kept picking a target and hitting it there.’’
Five times in six tries, Fowler birdied the hole that annually leads to fidgeting and fretting.
That included three straight times during the final round of the 2015 Players, once in regulation and two more times in a playoff that Fowler captured for an exciting victory that finally pushed him across a line that had been frustratingly elusive.
For the first time in three years, Fowler had captured a PGA Tour title – and one of its biggest – at a time when there were those who believed his hype far exceeded his resume. In fact, it was during that same week of the Players Championship that a golf publication had released an anonymous poll in which it declared Fowler and Ian Poulter as the game’s most “overrated’’ players.
“It was just coincidence,’’ Fowler said. “I can’t sit here and actually give credit to it. That’s pretty funny. I mean, I laughed at the survey. Same as what Poulter did. It was obviously nice to win and take care of the survey. Shows you how credible they are. Yeah, it was fun. Whether you prove something wrong or just taking care of business, it was good timing.’’
The former Oklahoma State golfer might not have racked up the victories to that point, but he had emerged as a strong player, having twice been on U.S. Ryder Cup teams. And he established himself as one of the game’s young, hip, accessible faces who didn’t mind taking chances with his wardrobe.
That the substance had yet to catch up to the style was for others to worry about – even though, sure, there were some concerns that he had just one victory, at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship.
Fowler, now 28, turned pro in 2009 and immediately tied for seventh in Las Vegas. The following week he lost in a playoff at the Frys.com Open and it would be 64 more tournaments before he would get that first victory at Quail Hollow.
That day, he beat Rory McIlroy in a playoff, and it seemed that breakthrough would mean plenty more victories were forthcoming. But it took another three years. Fowler had a little-discussed back issue; and then late in 2013, he decided to have instructor Butch Harmon take a look at his swing.
They agreed to work together in full toward the end of that year, and such changes inevitably lead to setbacks. Although Fowler finished in the top 5 at all four major championships in 2014, he again did not have any victories.
“We knew there was the possibility of potentially having a down year,’’ Fowler said. “I was at a point where I wasn’t getting any better. I wasn’t getting as much out of myself as I wanted to.
Possibly with where I was at, I was getting about as much as I could swing wise and game wise, but I wanted more. So to take a step back, I knew that I was possibly taking a risk of having nine to 12 months where I would be a little slow and then back off and running.”
The changes came faster than expected, but still didn’t result in any victories. And prior to the Players in 2015, he wasn’t exactly contending. He tied for ninth the previous week at the WGC-Match Play, his only top-10 of the year to that point. Even during the tournament, he wasn’t showing many signs that he was going to win.
“I think personally he and I were more patient than everyone else,’’ Skovron said. “We knew we were working toward something that was going to come. Guys want to win and he wanted to get wins on the board. And he had some expectations on him. We were coming along and people were like when is it going to happen when is it going to happen. Hey, he’s 24, 25 years old. It’s going to come. And then he just took off from there. A lot of good stuff.’’
Although he was only three shots off the lead through 54 holes, he was tied for 11th place. And during the final round, he was 1 over for the day through 12 holes and needed a good up-and-down for a par at the 12th to keep any hopes alive.
And then his run began. Fowler birdied the 13th, then after a par at the 14th hole, he added another birdie at the 15th. He knocked to 3 feet at the par-5 16th for an eagle – his first career eagle at that hotel – to get within 1 shot of the lead. Then he made the first of his three birdies on the day at the 17th, pounded a 330-yard drive at the 18th, set up another birdie, and played his last 4 holes in 11 strokes.
Of course, that wasn’t enough as he had to take on Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a three-hole aggregate playoff. After Garcia bowed out, it was sudden death, where Fowler prevailed with another birdie at the 17th.
“There were a couple of key holes that kept me going on Sunday, one being on 12 then I was able to go on from there,’’ Fowler said. “And then obviously the swings down the stretch, the wedges on 17 and the drives on 18. It was nice to come off a year before having some really good finishes in majors and then to get over the hump and actually win.’’
And while Fowler had some difficulties soon afterward – he missed the cut at both the Memorial and the U.S. Open – he won the Scottish Open the week prior to The Open, then captured the Deutsche Bank Championship during the FedEx Cup playoffs.
When he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the European Tour in
January of 2016, Fowler had four victories worldwide in less than a year and had vaulted to No. 4 in the world, starting talk of a Big Four along with Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy.
“Anytime I’ve thought about Rickie under pressure, he’s always hit the shot when he needed to,’’ McIlroy said. “You look to the playoff (at Quail Hollow in 2012), you look at the playoff and the way he finished the Players, look at how he finished off the Scottish Open, how he finished off in Abu Dhabi. He’s always been able to close.
“Sometimes it takes guys a little longer than other to develop and learn the necessary skills or mental attitude. I think if anything, he’s just got a little bit more of a ruthless streak in him. He’s such a nice guy and sometimes maybe that was reflected on how he was on the course instead of being a little more single-minded. He’s a great player and I think that Players victory definitely opened the door for him to kick on and win more, which he’s done.’’
Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Despite that early success in 2016, Fowler wasn’t able to close out a victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he lost in a playoff to Hideki Matsuyama. He had the 54-hole lead at Quail Hollow but did not deliver, then missed the cut in his Players Championship defense.
Later in the year, in need of a strong finish to assure a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, Fowler lost a lead at the Barclays. He was picked for the team anyway – and was a key contributor at Hazeltine.
But it wasn’t until his February victory at the Honda Classic that he added another victory to his resume. Fowler had gone 13 months and 25 worldwide starts between wins. It was his fourth PGA Tour title and while it was nowhere near as dramatic as his Players Championship victory, holding the trophy was just as satisfying.
“I didn’t play great,’’ he said. “But we got the job done. A win is a win.’’
May 01, 2017