During the week of the 2015 Players Championship, Rickie Fowler was tagged in an anonymous survey of players by
Sports Illustrated as “the most overrated player on the PGA Tour”.
Has anyone ever silenced his critics in more dramatic fashion than the way the now 29-year-old Fowler did in winning The Players that week?
He was accused of being all style and no substance. He was the Anna Kournikova of golf, a crowd-pleaser, a brand name that could sell orange, flat-brimmed hats, sign every autograph and light up social media with his Spring Break exploits. But he couldn’t win let alone win a big one. Fowler was overrated in the minds of many until he played the final 10 holes of regulation, a three-hole aggregate playoff and sudden-death at 17 at TPC Sawgrass in eight under for his final 10 holes to outlast Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner.
“It was kind of ironic and fun that that survey happened to come out, and to be sitting here that Sunday with the trophy and just to kind of, I guess, prove the survey wrong,” said Fowler.
Three years later, Fowler has a new Scarlet Letter he wears: Best Player Never to Win a Major. You get tagged with that dubious distinction when you’ve recorded eight top-five finishes in the majors as Fowler has without a victory.
It’s a designation that Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson, and Sergio Garcia endured until they removed themselves from the list and one that became too large of a burden for the likes of Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood to overcome. Count reigning PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas among those players who are confident Fowler is ready to soak in his own major championship glory.
“He’s too great of a player and gets himself there too often to not,” said Thomas. “It’s just, it’s hard.”
If Fowler were to win the Wanamaker Trophy that is awarded to the PGA champion this week, it wouldn’t be the first time it was in his possession. When Hurricane Irma threatened Florida in September, Thomas took precautions and brought the famed trophy to Fowler’s house for safe keeping.
“I put it right next to my Players Championship trophy,” said Fowler.
So close, yet so far from being the rightful owner of a major championship trophy. Winning would validate all the hard work to tighten his swing with instructor Butch Harmon over the past five years and also put to bed the talk he lacks the mean streak to be a major champion.
Fowler took second at the Masters, in April, firing a back-nine 32 on Sunday and losing by a stroke to Patrick Reed. Often, the first step before hoisting one of golf’s coveted trophies is to get a taste of the crucible of the back nine on Sunday. Fowler had been in the trophy hunt before, but never quite like this and said in April:
“It feels a lot different,” Fowler said in April. “This is the most, I mean,
”I am ready to go win a major, but this was kind of the first major week that I understood that and known that and felt that.”
But he blew up on Saturday at Shinnecock Hills, one of his favourite courses, and shot 84 in the US Open, and made a costly triple bogey on Saturday at Carnoustie and finished T-28 at The Open. Mickelson, the winner of five majors, didn’t win his first until age 33 and brings a more seasoned perspective of the challenge Fowler faces.
“The longer it goes, the more challenging it becomes,” Mickelson said. “The longer it goes, the more you start thinking about it. The more it’s discussed, the more you start thinking about it.”
Wayne Riley, the Sky Sports Golf on-course commentator, shared a telling anecdote in
from the 2017 Open Championship when Fowler waited behind the 18th green to congratulate Jordan Spieth on his latest triumph.
“At the end, I was standing close to Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. I was maybe five feet from them,” Riley recalled. “They both looked really happy for their friend. But in different ways. I could see happiness in Rickie for his friend, but an envy in his eyes. You could see him wondering, When am I going to do this? Justin didn’t have that look. He had the look of someone who knew this was going to happen for him. And of course it has. Rickie is starting to try too hard and not letting it happen.
“Now it’s going to be interesting to see how Justin and Jordan push each other in the majors. Rickie could go either way. He’s hoping it’s going to happen rather than knowing it is going to happen. Which is a shame. He has everything it takes to make it happen.”
Could this be the week, at Bellerive Country Club at the 100th PGA Championship?
Seven of the eight past PGA champions have been first-time major winners. The pressure on Fowler mounts with each passing major and with each passing year. If he fails this week, it will be another lost year and eight more months of answering questions to which there are no easy answers until his next opportunity. It could even lead to the reemergence of claims that Fowler is overrated.
Just don’t tell that to his pal Spieth.“I feel like if we look back on these questions that are asked to myself and others of Rickie’s peers, I think some day we’ll laugh at them,” he said.