Tour Confidential: Rickie Fowler Finally Gets His Big One

May 11, 2015

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Does Rickie Fowler’s win at the Players Championship, and the manner in which he charged into the playoff on the back nine, propel him to the next level of superstardom?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I really believe Rickie had forgotten how to close these things out, but this will help immensely going forward. He was in danger of becoming a nearly man after all those top-five finishes with no trophies. But does a Players win get him to the next level? It depends on the definition of next level. He’s not on the level of Rory McIlroy – no one is – and nor is on the same level as Jordan Spieth. There are major winners, and those who aspire to win a major. At the moment, Fowler is still in the second camp. 

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@EamonLynch): When it comes to engaging a younger audience in golf, Fowler is the only potential game changer on Tour, so his win is huge. For all of Tiger’s fan support over the years, when did you ever see droves of kids show up dressed like him? And to Fowler’s credit, this was not a tournament someone else lost, as has been the case so often at The Players. He won in thrilling, attacking style over the toughest closing stretch on Tour.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He’s a wonderful, stylish player, with two Tour wins. Nicklaus, Palmer and Woods are superstars. Rickie has a lot of upside.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): For sure. Rickie has always had everything but the wins. This was a massive step forward for him. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens): Put it this way, I doubt we’ll be seeing many more anonymous player polls calling him the most overrated guy on Tour. Huge win, for sure. Who knows, maybe now he’ll finally get some fan support and a nice sponsorship deal from an apparel company. 

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): For all of us who make a living in the golf business, I hope this Players win catapults Rickie Fowler into an elite competitive level. In terms of public recognition, he’s already achieved the highest level of superstardom. Great young man, class act – this Players performance is great for golf.

Coleman McDowell, associate editor, (@ColemanMcDowell): The current landscape of the sport has Rory McIlroy in the top tier, Jordan Spieth in the tier below, and everyone else fighting to be the best of the third tier. Folks will be quick to say Fowler is poised to make the leap into Spieth’s tier (and to be clear, he has closed the gap drastically), but we said the same about Justin Rose after the Zurich, Jimmy Walker at the Texas Open, Dustin Johnson after Doral, Jason Day after the Farmers and Patrick Reed after the ToC. Let’s let this win be just that: a good win.  

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Rickie was already a marketing superstar to the public. This win validates his high profile, wipes out all those overrated perceptions and raises hope that he, too, could join the Rory-Jordan New Wave. Also, he looks like a guy you don’t want to play in singles at the Ryder Cup. The Americans don’t have many of those.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, SI Golf Group (@JeffRitter): Not sure where the levels of stardom start and stop, but Rickie was one of golf’s headliners before this win. Obviously this was the biggest week of his career, and it gives him a huge boost heading into the summer’s major slate. All that’s left now is to — well, you know…

2. Sergio Garcia took the lead early on Sunday, but was passed by Fowler in regulation and couldn’t muster a birdie on the aggregate playoff. The 35-year-old is winless on Tour since 2012. After so much disappointment in big events, will Sergio ever win a major?

SHIPNUCK: We all knew Sergio was going to find a way to lose this one. What’s sad is I think he knew it too. 

RITTER: I was firmly in the “No majors for Sergio” camp for several years, but his recent progress is impossible to ignore. His ball-striking has never been better. One observation: Sergio likes being liked (a quality he shares with about 90 percent of all PGA Tour pros, Hollywood starlets and curmudgeon golf writers) but he’s unique in how his mood creeps into his play. I can’t see him ever winning a Masters or U.S. Open, but European crowds absolutely love him, and he just seems to bring some extra juice overseas. So, the British is his best shot, and I think it could happen — maybe as soon as St. Andrews this summer.

SENS: Unlike some of Sergio’s other close calls, this loss wasn’t self-inflected. He came from behind, played a lot of clutch shots, and only some crazy fireworks from others kept him from the winner’s circle. If I were his sports shrink, I’d urge him not to see this as another woe-is-me moment. I might even encourage him to steal one of those Stuart Smalley-esque refrains from his good pal Tiger and tell himself over and over, “I’m close. I’m really close.” Because, well, he is.

VAN SICKLE: Had Sergio putted at all the first three days, he would’ve won by eight. He played beautifully down the stretch. Of course he’s going to win again, but it was troubling that he switched in and out of his claw putting grip and when Steve Sands asked him a softball question about this performance propelling him into the summer, Sergio was noncommittal instead of enthusiastically saying “Yes!” Serge, you’re OK, right?

BAMBERGER: He will win another major event, likely a Players. I think he’ll play great at St. Andrews, if he gets the good side of the draw. But he runs to bad luck.

LYNCH: The quality of his ball striking makes me think he’ll win a big one eventually, but he needs to lose the fatalistic air he carries in big events, as though he expects imaginary golf gods to hobble him. Two things might help that disposition: Sergio making some putts, and the Tour ejecting the halfwits who think heckling players (particularly Garcia) comes with the price of a Sunday ticket.

MCDOWELL: Sergio didn’t plunk a ball in the water on No. 17 with the tournament on the line, No. 18 with the tournament on the line or No. 17 for the second time with the tournament on the line. I’d say that’s a win. 

PASSOV: For the most part, Sergio held it together beautifully at the Players. He just got outplayed – slightly. What a phenomenal putt he rolled in at 17 in regulation. He will absolutely win another major event, though I can’t commit to him winning a “major.”

MORFIT: I saw enough from Sergio today to restore my belief in him. He refused to just go away quietly once he dropped to two behind Fowler. I maintain that Sergio’s best chance to win a big tournament is at the British Open, where the greens are slower and where he feels the most love from the fans, but he clearly loves TPC Sawgrass. 


3. Tiger Woods carded his worst total score for his career at the Players and finished 69th. He made plenty of birdies all week long, but also recorded four double-bogeys along with a triple-bogey and hit drives that didn’t pass the forward tee boxes. What did we learn about Tiger’s game this week? 

LYNCH: We learned that a T69 finish among 75 guys who made the cut is now considered progress. For all the promise offered by Fowler’s arrival, it’s hard not to think of what has been lost to golf fans.

SHIPNUCK: What we’ve known for a while now: it’s not good enough. There are dozens of guys on Tour who are longer than Tiger. There are dozens who make more putts. There are 150 with more confidence chipping and pitching. He has a ton of institutional knowledge and if plays his absolute best he can still be dangerous but week-in-and-week-out he has too many holes in his game. And now he’s gonna disappear for a month?! Dude needs more reps. Desperately.

VAN SICKLE: Tiger’s game is still in transition, not only from adjusting to his injuries, but from his coaching changes. All I know for sure is as a golf student, he seems like a slow learner.

MORFIT: The good news is Tiger made the cut and finished all 72 holes. That’s a start. I was pleasantly surprised to see him make the weekend rounds. But even he admits he needs a lot more work on his game. He still doesn’t have a go-to shot to get off the tee and down the fairway, and that’s killing him right now. He’s still a mystery, as always.

PASSOV: What we learned about Tiger’s game is that it needs more work. What we also learned was that he nailed a huge birdie putt when he knew he needed it to make the cut. That was a very good sign going forward. What we also learned was that his game this week was better than Jordan Spieth’s, Jason Day’s, Phil Mickelson’s and Jimmy Walker’s, among others. Give him more tournament reps and let’s see how it unfolds.

RITTER: Tiger 2015 is capable of sensational shots and spectacular blowups — sometimes on the same hole. The bright side is that last week his chipping issues were once again contained, but he drove the ball all over Eastern Florida. He has no chance of winning anywhere until that’s corrected.

SENS: That making yet another swing change isn’t easy. It was actually fairly similar to the game we saw at Augusta, only on a course that is less forgiving from tee to green.

BAMBERGER: He seemed mentally out of it. I would guess his off-course life is intruding in his on-course life.

4. A lot of noise came out of the Anonymous Pro Poll that ran in Sports Illustrated Golf+ this week, especially pros voting Ian Poulter and Rickie Fowler as the most overrated players in golf. Were the opinions expressed by the pros valid? Does the Fowler victory change his overrated perception? 

SENS: Absolutely they’re valid. Whether they’re correct is another matter. But to his credit, Fowler himself didn’t try to dismiss them; instead, he said he would try to draw on them as inspiration, which I imagine he did. And yeah, I don’t think we’ll see Fowler’s name mentioned in the overrated category very often from now on. That will be Poulter’s cross to bear alone.

VAN SICKLE: Those opinions were valid because before Rory, Rickie was the third most famous player behind Tiger and Phil and really the only other player who could move the needle for the public. Based on one win? Like Poulter, his fame outstripped his achievements through no fault of his own. Rickie is validated now. Your turn, Poults.

BAMBERGER: They were valid by definition. We reported what the pros said. 

MCDOWELL: Twenty-one percent of the pros said Patrick Reed would win more majors than Jordan Spieth, so after that, I don’t know how you can take anything else they said too seriously. 

PASSOV: I’d say that the pros “overrated” picks of Fowler and Poulter were warranted–though Rickie just kicked that to the curb–but I think some of those barbs were cast out of envy for the popularity of those two players. How about Keegan Bradley? Only three wins, none since 2012, and one of them was via a gift-wrapped 72nd hole double-bogey by Jim Furyk.

SHIPNUCK: Sure they were. But perceptions can change quickly, as Fowler just proved. 

LYNCH: An overrated person is usually someone more successful than you. The two players named as most overrated share a common trait: they have astutely marketed themselves into lucrative brands with a reach far beyond their resume. I suspect those votes were largely fueled by jealousy, and the jealousy of others isn’t really something Fowler can change. What he has changed is the legitimate perception that he was an underachiever.

RITTER: The pros expressed their thoughts, and it was fascinating to learn what they think. That said, if we redo the survey this week the results would obviously look very different.

MORFIT: Fowler just said in his presser that he laughed at the poll, but I wonder if it didn’t motivate him. Also, he said watching Rory and Jordan close out tournaments gave him “a kick in the butt.” With a winless streak of three years and four days, he needed it. He should be sending a bouquet of flowers to the offices of SI.  


5. The Players ended with a three-hole aggregate playoff followed by a sudden-death playoff beginning on No. 17. Is the aggregate playoff a good format, or would you rather see players head back to the 18th hole like other PGA Tour events? 

VAN SICKLE: The three-hole playoff was brilliant, and not only because I’ve been suggesting that in the pages of SI for the last 15 years. Those are the three most exciting holes on the course, and that playoff was breathless. I’d suggest that the Tour aim for a finish 15 minutes earlier to allow for an extended playoff but hey, I loved every minute of it. If The Players ever becomes a major (I’m not saying it will or it won’t), it’ll be this edition of it where it turned the corner in the minds of the public and media. Hey, I said IF.

LYNCH: Three of the majors have an aggregate playoff format, so it’s no surprise that the faux major ought to adopt a ‘me too’ approach. Give me sudden death all the time, majors or not.

SENS: Depends on the course and the competition. An aggregate playoff at, say, the John Deere, would be overkill. But given the prestige of the Players, and the drama of those three holes, the format proved itself to be the perfect fit.

RITTER: Those three holes are a great closing stretch for regulation, but in a playoff I’d prefer playing 17 and 18 on a loop in sudden-death format. This Players will go down in history, but the three-hole aggregate phase of the playoff will be a footnote behind the wild close to regulation and the electrifying first hole of sudden death.

PASSOV: I think the Players adds to its near-major status with the aggregate playoff. It’s much fairer and gives us a more deserving champion. Still, I was sitting there stewing–and not in a good way–thinking they were going to run out of daylight, which would have produced the definitive buzzkill. Personally, I’d rather see them play 17 over and over.

BAMBERGER: For this tournament, three holes, and those three holes, is a perfect playoff. Unless you need more. 

SHIPNUCK: It was such an exciting final round and then the aggregate playoff felt like a major buzzkill. Sudden death beginning on 17 is way more fun and a perfect distillation of the event: over-the-top and a little cheesy but certainly exciting. 

MORFIT: I liked the aggregate format. It teases out the drama a little, which is great, and it sort of precludes a single gust of wind from deciding the whole tournament. I’m just glad they got done before it got too dark. 

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.