Rickie Fowler set his sights on a first major title after producing two moments of magic to win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and climb to a career-high fourth in the world rankings.
After completing a flawless 65 in the delayed third round yesterday morning, Fowler carded a closing 69 to finish a shot ahead of Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, with Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson a shot further back in third.
Fowler took a two-shot lead into the final round and birdied the first two holes to double his advantage, only to run up a double bogey on the seventh after thinning his second shot from a sandy waste area across the green.
Moments later, Spain’s Alejandro Canizares birdied the 10th to cut Fowler’s lead to a single shot, only for the American to hole out from a greenside bunker on the par-five eighth for an eagle.
A run of eight straight pars allowed the chasing pack, led initially by playing partner Pieters, to get within a shot again, with Stenson then carding three birdies in the last four holes and McIlroy playing his last seven in five under, including an eagle from 35 feet on the last.
However, Fowler responded by chipping in for a birdie on the 17th to take a two-shot lead up the 18th, where Pieters agonisingly missed his eagle attempt to force a play-off.
“The ultimate goal this year is to go win a major and this is a step in the right direction for sure,” Fowler said after winning his second European Tour title. “It’s nice to have the game where it’s at right now going into the season, instead of trying to work on things and trying to find stuff.
“Right now I can go and fine tune and really build ultimately for Augusta. This is really the first time in my career I’ve had this feeling about my game and where it’s at.” The so-called “Big Three” of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy have won five of the last six majors between them and Fowler reiterated he needs one of his own to make it a “Big Four.”
“I’d like to jump in and be a part of that crew,” added Fowler, who has now won four times in eight months, starting with the Players Championship at Sawgrass in the week he and Ian Poulter were voted the most overrated players by their peers in an anonymous survey.
“They are the three highest-ranked players in the world. There’s no way around that and the three of them have played amazing. I want to be a part of the crew. We’ve got to take care of a major and then maybe I can join.
“To win with Jordan and Rory in the field, it’s awesome. I want to be playing against the best players in the world and beating the best players in the world. I’m looking forward to going to battle with those guys all year long and for the rest of our careers.”
McIlroy, who has now finished runner-up four times and third once in the last six years in Abu Dhabi, was left to rue a poor finish to his third round and the start of the fourth. “It seems like this could be the tournament I just can’t quite master,” said McIlroy, who would have moved up to world number two if Pieters had not birdied the 18th. “There was an 18-hole stretch I played in one over and in a tournament like this, you just can’t do that.
“I gave myself a lot of work to do and just didn’t quite have it today. I think 68 is the best I could have done out there with the places I hit it. I don’t think I hit a shot off the fairway until the ninth hole.” World number one Spieth finished three shots behind McIlroy in a tie for fifth and admitted his recent travels had taken their toll, even at the age of 22.
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