SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The game is cruel. Everybody knows that. Hence (a Tiger favorite) the phrase, “Every shot makes somebody happy.” But the crazy thing about what happened to Rickie Fowler today, on the 11th hole of the Stadium Course here, is this: the whole tournament went into bizarro world without him even playing a shot. It’s happened before, but not often.
In the space of a few long seconds Fowler, a crowd favorite wherever he goes, went from in control of the tournament to letting various lodge brothers in. This spectacular bit of oddness happened while he was nowhere near his ball.
The man of the hour was innocently walking around the 11th green, checking things out, not bothering a soul. He was in his bright orange windbreaker, a rare show of color on a dank, rainy day. That’s when his golf ball, about 15 yards away, suddenly decided to just take off from the very spot where Fowler had placed it, after incurring his first penalty shot on the hole.
There are about 30 acres of fairway at the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale and Fowler’s ball was sitting on a few blades of Bermuda grass on a sloping embankment between the green and the manmade pond beyond it. When his ball disappeared in a penalty area, Fowler had spent a stroke. A one-shot penalty, technically. But on his scorecard, and on the leaderboard, it looked like a shot. A shot that will live in infamy.
We’ll recap the whole crazy sequence of events in a moment, but first a word from the Woods family media room in Hobe Sound, Fla., man of the house speaking:
Dude, have you not been listening? You gotta own those fourth rounds like the NFL owns Sundays!
Fowler, who is 30, and Woods, 43, are both native sons of Southern California who have reestablished themselves in a golfing diaspora, South Florida, where they have become two of the most prominent citizens of the SFGS. (That is, the South Florida Golf Scene.) On Saturday, the epicenter of the SFGS was the Trump National course in Jupiter, in a foursome made up of Donald Trump, Jack Nicklaus in shorts and his son Steve, and Woods. Later that day, Woods sent Fowler a 54-hole text of support: Good playing and go get the job done. Woods has never lost with a three-shot Tour lead. He’s 24 for 24.
Fowler and Woods play together regularly at the Medalist Golf Club, a few miles up the road from Jupiter. Woods and Fowler, at tender ages, were both PGA Tour poster boys and the subject of lavish marketing campaigns. But in one critical area — closing time! — their paths diverge wildly.
In his touring life, Woods has had the 54-hole lead or co-lead in 59 Tour events and has won 55 of them. On a rainy and cool Super Bowl Sunday, Fowler came to the first tee here, in bright-white pants he stole from a Good Humor man, with a less enviable fourth-round record. Yes, he had a four-shot lead after playing three spectacular rounds: 64, 65, 64. But deep in the mountain of statistics provided by the PGA Tour was this looming reality. Sunday at the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open represented the seventh time Fowler had the lead or co-lead in Tour events. In the previous six, he had won once.
Fowler has eight top-five finishes in majors, and on Sunday he was looking for his fifth Tour win. He’s excellent at golf, no question about that, and there’s something totally likable about his actual play, his stylish swing, his quick pace, his sense of perspective. But Ben Crane and Nick Watney each have five Tour wins. If you want true (that is, earned) Tour status, you have to own your Sundays, or some goodly percentage of them.
And now Fowler was about to play his sixth shot on the 483-yard par-4 11th.
Here’s how that part went down. If you’re squeamish, just skip this next bit.
Despite the hole’s length, Fowler hit an iron off the tee, a 260-yard driving iron that finished in the damp right rough. His second shot went nowhere and finished about 10 yards short of the green. The hole was at the back of the green, with a bunker beyond it, followed by a pond. He hit a poor chip shot that went past the flagstick without any brakes on, then headed down a slope, skirting and missing the bunker and finishing in the pond.
Fowler then did the new drop-from-the-knees thing, on a slope that was cut to fairway height. When his two mandated drops wouldn’t stick, he placed his ball on the grass, all in accordance with the rules. That’s when he hiked up to the green, for a look-see. While there, the ball rolled into the water. That’s rub of the green. That’s the weird random cruelty inherent in the game. Had there been no pond there, he would have just played it from its new position. But there was. You get the shot.
In the caddie hospitality room, the fellas were recounting what had happened.
“No way!” one said when hearing the play-by-play.
“You got to look at the green first, then drop it,” another said.
One caddie wondered if a new rule, the so-called Dustin Johnson rule, should have allowed Fowler to proceed without penalty.
“Only if it’s on the green,” another caddie said, with total accuracy.
Just to put this in the most basic terms possible, you drive it in the fairway. A dog picks up your ball and deposits it out of bounds. What do you do? You replace your ball where it was, no penalty. But if wind or gravity suddenly takes your resting ball-in-play out of bounds, now you’re walking back to the tee. It’s as if you hit it out of bounds from the get-go. And so it was with Fowler. When he placed that ball, it was in play. When wind or gravity, which are not so-called outside agencies, move your ball, you play it as it lies. If the ball is in a pond, or out of bounds, that’s a tough break, and a penalty.
There was nothing funky or for that matter new about Fowler’s situation on 11.
The triple bogey he made there was, all things considered, excellent. “It was a really good triple,” he said later. He walked off the green not actually sure if he had made a triple or a quad. Yikes! The 17-footer he made there was probably the most important shot he hit all day.
Yes, he made a bogey on 12, which put him at 15 under for the tournament. Branden Grace, playing in the threesome in front of Fowler, finished the day at 15 under. But Fowler made birdies on 15 and 17 and was able to win by two, despite a Sunday 74.
Fowler was asked what if he has learned anything from Woods about Sunday golf on the PGA Tour. “When I’ve talked to him about it, it’s about sticking to the game plan and executing.” Twice, Fowler said, he didn’t execute. He also made a double on the fifth. But he found a way to win.
“Just being around Tiger, and playing matches with him, we have fun. He’s made me a better player. It’s a learning situation, even if you’re not asking him about what he thinks about.”
Sunday golf on Tour, he acknowledged as thousand of others have learned the hard way, is not Thursday golf or Friday golf or Saturday golf. “They definitely are different,” the winner said Sunday night. “It’s a different feeling. I think I’ve done a good job of being there more and more and trying to make them feel more like just another day out there.”
So now he has five. Five wins on the PGA Tour. That’s excellent. The next time he sees them, Ben Crane and Nick Watney will have that special robe, reserved for members of the Five-Timers Club.
In victory, in the basement of the clubhouse, Fowler spoke of Jarrod Lyle and another friend, Griffin Connell, both of whom recently died. He spoke of his fiancé and her parents, his pregnant sister, his mother and father, his granmuh and granpuh. The Super Bowl was playing on a TV in an adjacent room. He seemed low-key, content, in control, pretty much as he seems on those Sundays when things don’t go so well. There was a flute of Voveti (sparkling Italian wine) in front of him. And the winner’s trophy beside that. “Trophies are great and this is amazing,” Fowler said. But win or lose, he said, “the sun’s coming up tomorrow.”
Nice attitude, if you can get it.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.