By Brian Wacker
Rickie Fowler has always been a “glass full” kind of guy. It’s his personality, the one that’s won over a legion of fans of all ages. But at some point, perception becomes reality. Or in the case of one blown lead after another, reality becomes, well, more reality.
Going into the final round of this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, Fowler’s Sunday struggles had been well-documented. Of the six times in his PGA Tour career that he had led after 54 holes, he had gone on to win just once. On exactly none of those occasions had he managed to break par in the final round, including each of the last two years at TPC Scottsdale.
So when Fowler chipped across the green and into the water on the par-4 11th, then watched helplessly from the green as his ball rolled back into the water on its own, it looked like Here we go again. The triple-bogey 7, followed by another bogey on the par-3 12th—where Fowler badly tugged his tee shot into a bunker and failed to get up-and-down—meant a five-stroke lead minutes earlier was suddenly a one-stroke deficit.
The good news for Fowler? There was still plenty of golf to be played, though. And this time he made the most of that opportunity.
Fowler, with his always forward-looking mindset, settled down (sort of) and bounced back with a birdie at the par-5 15th and another on the par-4 17th. He also made some nervy par saves—a six-footer on 13, an up-and-down from an awkward stance next to a bunker on the raucous 16th and one more on 18 after driving into thick rough.
It helped, too, that the three players chasing him—Justin Thomas and Matt Kuchar playing alongside Fowler, and Branden Grace, in the group ahead—all struggled at one point or another.
But as Paul Azinger noted in his debut broadcast for NBC after taking over for Johnny Miller on Sunday, this wasn’t about the players behind Fowler. He was competing against himself (at least until he wasn’t anymore).
Fowler didn’t break par (again), shooting a three-over 74, but he held steady on his last handful of holes, which was good enough for a two-stroke victory.
“I hope I never have to go through that again,” said Fowler after a long swig of champagne following his first win since 2017 and the fifth of his PGA Tour career. “The way I was playing this week, I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I thought it was going to be a lot easier than that out there today.”
That it was as difficult as it was, however, could go a long way toward helping Fowler get past his final-round foibles.
When good friends Thomas and Fowler were in the scoring trailer, Thomas, five years Fowler’s junior but with four more victories on tour, including a major, told his buddy that he’s going to get a lot more out of showing resilience and coming back the way he did than going out and cruising to an easy victory.
Maybe. Maybe not. Time will tell.
The better news for Fowler, who turned 30 in December, is that despite the incredible and immediate success of Thomas and other 20-somethings dominating the game, golf has a long history of players who didn’t hit their stride until their 30s. Phil Mickelson didn’t win his first major until age 33. Others who followed the same path in more recent years include Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia. In the case of Rose, he didn’t reach No. 1 in the world until his late 30s.
Sure, all of those players had many more victories on their resume than Fowler does, but each had various hurdles they overcame at one point or another in their careers before breaking through.
Maybe Fowler’s best is still yet to come. Sometimes a player doesn’t need his best, either.
That much was evident in Sunday’s unusually wet, blustery conditions at TPC Scottsdale, where Fowler shot the highest final-round score by a winner in the 81-year history of the tournament and became the first player since the PGA Tour started tracking such stats to make a triple bogey and a double bogey in the same round and still come out on top in a tour event.
A win, as they as, is a win.
“Yeah, it sucked,” Fowler said of his mid-round struggles on Sunday. “But it was kind of just trying to put all that behind me, understand that playing well the first three days and giving myself that cushion is what kind of allows for some mistakes, and you don’t have to go out and play a perfect round.
“On the flip side, if you’re four shots back you may have to go out and put together a damn near perfect round of golf to win. So luckily I didn’t need a perfect round today.”
Nope. Just some champagne to fill that glass.