Rickie Fowler’s stunning victory yesterday in the Players Championship is the best thing the world of professional golf has seen in a long, long time.
Fowler’s victory in the world’s fifth most important tournament, a quasi-major, suddenly announces that the battle of the young guns now is thoroughly joined. Not since the mid-1970s (Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, John Mahaffey, Jerry Pate, Tom Kite, with a few others like Jerry Heard and Grier Jones also seeming to offer promise) has a crop of 20-somethings looked so poised to vie for dominance for years, perhaps even two decades, to come.
We now have a four-time major winner, Rory McIlroy, at the tender age of 26 and coming off a victory at the WGC Match Play, being challenged for supremacy by 21-year-old Masters winner Jordan Spieth; by the 26-year-old Fowler (top-five finishes in all four majors last year); by the 27-year-old Jason Day (three PGA Tour wins, including a Match Play title, and three seconds and a third in majors); and with the likes of Patrick Reed (already four Tour wins at age 24), Billy Horschel (a FedEx Cup title in his hands at age 28), Keegan Bradley (age 29, with a PGA Championship under his belt), Webb Simpson (29, with a U.S. Open title), and Hideki Matsuyama (age 23, with a Memorial title and five others worldwide) all showing the potential to enter the Top-Gun discussion. Throw in Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and Charl Schwartzel, all age 30, and we have an even dozen players under age 31 who might seriously vie for the top spot in the World Rankings at some point in their career. (And that’s not even to mention other up-and-comers like Brooks Kopka, Justin Thomas, and several others under age 30 with “serious game.”)
Within the past month, Spieth laid down his marker by running away with the Masters, McIlroy answered with his knife’s edge Match Play victory, and Fowler performed his wonders to win at the TPC-Sawgrass in the very week an anonymous poll of fellow competitors listed him as one of the two most overrated players on tour. It’s like watching gladiators taking turns delivering body blows in their quest for supremacy.
Adding to the storylines on tour are the continuing soap opera that Tiger Woods has become, the ability of an otherwise indifferent Phil Mickelson still to rouse himself at the majors, the metronomic repetition of Sergio Garcia in finding ways to fall just short of triumph, and the remarkable weekly consistency of Jim Furyk, who turns 45 tomorrow (Tuesday).
Now, let’s go back to Fowler. Granted, the Players is not quite a major, but Fowler’s closing burst ranks among the greatest end-of-tourney charges golf has ever seen — up there in brilliance, although certainly not in importance, with Jack Nicklaus’ closing 65 at the 1986 Masters, Gary Player’s closing 64 in the 1978 Masters, Arnold Palmer’s famous stunning blitz to start the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open, and Johnny Miller’s 63 to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1973.
Don’t believe me? Think about it. At a famed, championship course, under heavy pressure, Fowler played his final ten holes in eight strokes under par. (And he was 7-under for his final 8 holes.) That’s almost inhuman. At Augusta in 1986, Nicklaus played his final 10 holes in minus-7. Augusta was easier then than the TPC is now. Nicklaus’ eagle that year came with a 4-iron in hand, Fowler’s with a tougher fairway wood. Fowler birdied the most famously treacherous hole in golf, the island-green 17th, three times in one day — all three by firing directly at the tightly tucked pin, just feet from disaster. Fowler birdied the hugely frightening 18th hole to finish his regular round. He had to carry shots over water eight times in his final 10 holes, and flirt with water on several other shots. And he had to make his final birdie while knowing, not just guessing, that the whole tournament hung on his putt.
His performance was mind-boggling stuff. And it came in the midst of Garcia sinking a 45-foot putt on 17, Bill Haas making a charge that fell just short, Kevin Kisner burning the cup not once but twice with the tourney on the line, Ben Martin tying him before bogeying 18 — and, to repeat, with that blasted anonymous poll hanging over his head, knowing that if he failed in the playoff, the poll’s burden would grow and grow and grow.
(Time out: It occurs to me that this is written as if you actually saw the event. So, to recap for those who missed it. Fowler trailed by five strokes with six holes to play. Starting at 13 he went birdie-par-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to finish at -12. Garcia, in the lead, bogeyed 14, but then birdied 16 and made his 45-footer for birdie at 17 to tie. He parred 18. Kisner, for his part, also birdied 16 and 17 to tie, and then missed his birdie attempt at 18 by about half a centimeter. Martin made some birdies coming in, to tie, only to drive it in the trees on 18 and bogey. Haas birdied three in a row, but missed birdie at 18 to fall just short. In a three-way, cumulative-score 3-hole playoff, then, between Fowler, Kisner and Garcia, all three drove right on the par-5 16th, all laid up on their second shots, all made par. On 17, Fowler and Kisner both stuffed it close and made birdie while Garcia parred, and then all three parred 18 (Kisner again burning the cup but missing birdie). Garcia thus was eliminated. Then, in sudden death on the island green of 17, Kisner missed a 12 footer for birdie, and Fowler won with a 4-foot, 8-inch birdie putt.)
Sure, it’s only Fowler’s second win on tour. And it wasn’t a major. Nobody (except maybe his family) will still be getting teary-eyed while watching it three decades from now, the way we all do when we re-watch the 1986 Masters.
But this is still tremendously exciting. It says to McIlroy and Spieth, and to all the others who want to be in the conversation: Game on, dudes. Bring it.
And it’s one helluva fun thing to watch.