It was one very bad shot in one equally huge moment on one large stage. It was also the story of Rickie Fowler’s slower-than-expected rise on the PGA Tour.
Trailing Tiger Woods by two shots during Monday’s final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Fowler sat 179 yards from the par-five 16th green with birdie squarely in his sights and eagle a real possibility. One fat iron later into a lake fronting the green and it was more than Fowler’s ball that was drowning; it was his chance for a breakthrough victory against the player who would ascend to world No. 1 about an hour later.
That Fowler would also submerge his fourth shot to the green en route to a triple bogey and then watch as Woods made birdie to lock up his third victory of the year was just salt into a wound that has stung the popular young player during his first several years on Tour.
Making matters worse, the mishap on the reachable 16th came on the heels of a back-nine run that saw Fowler trim Tiger’s once five-shot lead over him to just two. And with Woods sitting in a fairway bunker to his right, it appeared the one-time Oklahoma State star was poised to keep the pressure on Woods.
Instead, Fowler walked off the 16th green six shots behind Woods and for the second time in less than a year, on the wrong side of a final round showdown with the man in red. Fowler and Woods were paired together in the final round of last year’s Memorial Invitational only to see Tiger dust him on the way to victory.
“Until 16 I was hitting it well,” Fowler said. “I was swinging it well, making a few putts, trying to put a little pressure on them, let them know I was there. Just would like to have that seven-iron back on 16, just kind of touch heavy. And I had a perfect club there, just unfortunate to make that swing at that time.” (www.asapsports.com).
Perhaps a bit of an understatement, but unfortunate is an appropriate term for the way Monday both started and finished for Fowler. A slow start saw the one-time PGA Tour winner make eight consecutive pars before finally breaking through with a birdie on the par-four ninth. During that same stretch, Woods got to three-under for the round and turned a two-shot margin into a five-stroke spread over Fowler before giving one back with a bogey on eight.
Still, the charge that began with that birdie on nine continued with birdies on the par-five 12th and the par-three 14th. After both players bogeyed the 15th hole, they turned to the 16th with Fowler only two shots back and with momentum still on his side.
Then the short seven-iron from the fairway happened and another final round disappointment for Fowler was floating in the green-side hazard. The triple bogey bounced Fowler from contention and certainly brought back memories of the 2012 Memorial Invitational, the last time he was paired with Tiger Woods in the final group of a final round on the PGA Tour.
Tiger Woods shot a final round 67 that day to win his second event on Tour last year. Fowler didn’t have nearly that success, blowing up to a final round 84, a full 17 shots off Tiger’s pace. That performance left Fowler looking for a measure of redemption Monday at Bay Hill. Ultimately, that redemption would escape him and leave the young PGA Tour star still in search of a second Tour victory to validate his 2012 triumph in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hallow.
Most who see the talent and flair in Fowler’s game know it’s not a matter of if, but when that second victory will come, but those same people know the big numbers and “made for television” meltdowns Fowler is known for must be eliminated.
While his victory at Quail Hollow was a breakthrough, especially considering it came over Rory McIlroy in a playoff, the talented Fowler has had multiple opportunities to win only to see average or below average Sunday rounds relegate him to runner-up or lower.
Yet disappointment aside, following Monday’s round, Fowler showed significant maturity, choosing to praise Woods’ performance and focus on the way he played for much of the round rather than lament the two shots that got away from him at the end.
“It’s a little redemption,” Fowler said of his overall performance Monday. “I mean I know I can play with any of these guys out here. I felt good out there today. Other than that, other than 16, it was a pretty solid round of golf.”(www.asapsports.com)
Handling defeat is certainly one way to turn setbacks into full redemption. In fact, Fowler needs only to look at the man he competed with on Monday. Two years ago he was supposedly finished, washed up as a champion with no hope of ever regaining the world’s top spot in golf. On Monday, he was a winner for the third time this year and indeed, the world’s top-ranked golfer yet again.
Fowler isn’t likely to ever climb to those heights, but if he’s looking for a model to follow to fulfill his own potential as a multiple winner on the PGA Tour and a major champion, he didn’t have far to look coming down the stretch Monday. Perhaps this time the experience will prepare him for that full redemption he seeks.
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