Fowler converted a short birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death – the 478-yard par-4 18th – after both D.A. Points and Rory McIlroy had holed longer putts for par. It was done; Fowler was a winner on the foremost golf tour in the world, something that had been expected since he turned pro in 2009 after two seasons at Oklahoma State.
Fowler had prepped for his breakthrough victory with a win in Korea last fall, but that did absolutely nothing to stop the same question from being asked and asked again, week after week, at every PGA Tour event he entered.
“When will Rickie Fowler break through and win out here?”
The answer came Sunday at Quail Hollow and, to some, it was no surprise. Metrolina Golf Magazine foreshadowed the outcome in an article posted on its website after Thursday’s first round. And why not?
Quail Hollow, which will host the PGA Championship in 2017, had provided the stage for both Anthony Kim’s and McIlroy’s debut victories on the PGA Tour. Kim was 22 years old when he won here in 2008; McIlroy was just days from his 21st birthday when he raised the trophy two years ago.
Fowler, who is 23 years and five months old as he joins the Tour’s winners’ club, brings the number to three first-time PGA Tour winners in the still short, 10-year history of the tournament.
The colorful, personable kid with the Justin Bieber good looks and the grit of a moto-crosser – which he was before he turned his concentration solely to golf – had to survive one of the most dramatic Sunday’s in that short history.
At the start of the day, 13 players were within six shots of third-round leader Webb Simpson, looking to pick up a victory within walking distance of his home. Simpson, a member at Quail Hollow, was 14 under par after three days of perfect weather and low scoring, yet just a single shot ahead of Ryan Moore and D.A. Points
But the flood of red ink that had colored the scoreboards for three rounds dried up under the pressure of a humid, overcast Sunday afternoon when a trophy and a check for more than $1 million hung in the balance.
Of the 14 players at the top of the leaderboard on Sunday morning, only Fowler sposted a final round in the 60s.
Oh, there were some low rounds posted, but none by a player with any real chance to win when the round began. For example, Lee Westwood, the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings not that long ago, carded a 6-under 66 to jump up 25 spots in the pay line, but then, he started the day barely inside the top 30. Ben Curtis, a winner just two weeks earlier in Texas, advanced 18 spots to join Westwood in a tie for fifth with his 67.
It was Tournament Director Kym Hougham who pointed out before the round that two players had a chance join last year’s winner, Lucas Glover, as the only players in tournament history to post four rounds in the 60s. Those two players were Simpson and Points.
With his closing 71, Points wasn’t going to do it, even if he hadn’t made his first bogey in 41 holes when he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker at the final hole. That bogey costs him the one-shot lead he needed to protect as he stood on the 18th tee and, as it turned out, laid the foundation for Fowler’s maiden victory.
Maybe it was the pressure of playing in front of a partial and boisterous home crowd--not to mention family and fellow club members--but Simpson didn’t even match par, finishing with a 73 that left him one shot shy of the playoff and alone in fourth place.
Nick Watney, a guest at Simpson’s house for the week and the player who held the midway lead after rounds of 68-64, fared even worse. His 74, a number matched by Moore (who tied Westwood and Curtis) dropped him to ninth, one shot behind that threesome.
That left Fowler to savor the long-awaited win.
“It's a good feeling right now,” Fowler said, shortly after being presented his first professional trophy earned on American soil. “Definitely some relief, satisfaction … I'm definitely happy. It's not a bad thing, winning. It's kind of fun.”
It was definitely fun for the sellout galleries that lined every hole at Quail Hollow. Coming down the stretch, the three glfers destined for the playoff were tied for the lead at 15 under. Fowler had gotten there with his sixth birdie of the day at the par-5 15th. McIlroy did it with back-to-back birdies at 14 and 15, and Points reached with a birdie – only his second since the seventh hole on Saturday – at the same hole, thanks to a bunker save.
But Fowler dropped to minus-14 when both his drive and his approach found bunkers at 16 – the approach shot plugging deep into the silica – and he made his third bogey of the day. McIlroy followed suit when he missed the green right at the par-3 17th, leaving Points, bidding to become the first player ever to play the last two rounds of the Wells Fargo bogey free – as the sole leader with just a hole to play.
Points tempted fate when his drive skipped through a fairway bunker, leaving him in short rough. But he wouldn’t be so lucky with his approach, finding the bunker right of the green.
In the playoff, all three players found the fairway with their tee shots, McIlroy’s three-wood outdistancing the drivers hit by both of the others. But it was Fowler who stiffed a wedge just underneath a pin cut tight to the front left corner.
“I was just trying to stay as serious as possible and know that I still had a lot of work to do,” Fowler said, explaining how he spent the time it took for his competitors to line up and play four putts between them before he could hit his first and, as it turned out, only putt of the playoff.
“You know, four‑foot range. It seemed longer, but it's not a gimmie. I tried to stay focused as long as I could, and obviously have a little bit of conversation on the green with my caddie and a couple other guys just to keep things light.
“But no, I tried not to get ahead of myself, focused on the putt, and when I got the time to hit it, just focus on hitting a good putt.”
Even with the playoff loss, McIlroy moves back ahead of Luke Donald as the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings, possibly the most irrelevant title in sports until someone can hold onto it for more than a month or so. Even “Rors” didn’t sound impressed.
“That's nice. It's a little consolation,” he offered. “I would rather win the tournament. But, yeah, it's good. I want to try and play well for the next few weeks and try and solidify my spot there at No. 1.”
It might surprise many to know that it won’t be the bogey at 17 that will haunt McIlroy most.
“No, probably the bogey on 11 was very disappointing,” he said, recalling a hole where he delivered another three-wood bomb to the heart of the fairway and then missed the green from 97 yards. He had done much the same after a huge drive at 16 just one day before.
“But I felt like it was a bonus just to get into the playoff after D.A. bogeyed the last ... You wouldn't call the 18th today a birdie hole with that pin. For Rickie to go out and play that hole the way he did, he deserved to win.”
For Points, it’s easy to identify the one hurdle he couldn’t clear. It was the approach to the 72nd green.
“Yeah, the wind was whipping around a little bit, but I had, I think, 165 to the front, off a downhill lie out of the rough, and generally speaking, I hit an 8‑iron 165 yards, so I was just trying to hit that right up the middle of the green and land it right on the front fringe and hope it kind of bounced up there,” he said.
“And the ball was on a severe downhill lie, and I just slid a little bit ahead of it … and it went out to the right. And then it got a little bit of an unfortunate break. It hit on the corner of the bunker and shot to the back. I was hoping that I was going to be a little bit more on an upslope and be able to hit a higher, softer shot. Instead, I kind of had to try and hit something low and try to run it down there, which obviously didn't work very well.
“Yeah, it wasn't my best swing, but it was also not that easy of a shot.”
Instead of focusing on the last hole of regulation, Points could have rued the entire weekend. Before he made that closing bogey, the player who led the field in greens in regulation made just two birdies and 26 pars over the previous 28 holes. That’s because, when he did hit the green, he ranked 47th in putting. Still, he would have won with a sand save at 18.
No doubt, there are a lot of youngsters sporting orange caps two sizes too big for them who are glad that didn’t happen.