‘We’re close’: Fowler dazzles on Masters Sunday but again comes up just short in a major

April 8, 2018

AUGUSTA, Ga. — When newly minted Masters champion Patrick Reed arrived at the scorer’s cabin on Sunday evening at Augusta National, an old pal was waiting by the door to congratulate him. 

The men clasped hands and leaned into one another.

Reed smiled broadly. So, too, did his friend, Rickie Fowler. As Reed disappeared to sign his card, Fowler retreated to a small posse of his loved ones, including his girlfriend, Allison Stokke, and parents Lynn and Rod. They had much to celebrate: a dazzling Sunday 67 from Fowler that helped him surge up the leaderboard into solo second, just one stroke behind Reed.

Fowler, a veteran of 33 major championships (hard to believe, right?), has made a habit of hanging around to commend his peers after their major victories. When Justin Thomas won the PGA Championship in Charlotte last year, Fowler was there to celebrate with JT by the 18th green. When Jordan Spieth won the Claret Jug at Birkdale, there was Fowler again, smack in the middle of the victory party. Same thing with Jimmy Walker at the Baltusrol PGA two years ago. Which means when Fowler finally has his major moment, don’t be surprised if a coach bus full of his comrades rumbles up to the 18th green. [image:14112547]       

This cool Sunday in Augusta very nearly was Fowler’s moment, although it didn’t appear that way early in the proceedings. Fowler, who began the day at nine under, four strokes back of Reed, was stuck in neutral for most of the front nine. He bogeyed the 5th and didn’t make a birdie until the par-5 8th, by which point CBS was already giving up on him. Then he started hearing roars — not for his play, for Spieth’s. His spring-break travel mate was making birdies by the bushel on the back nine.

“That was kind of a kick in the butt,” Fowler said. “I knew I needed a good back nine, but to see one of your buddies playing well, I knew what I needed to do.”

At the knee-knocker par-3 12th he stiffed a short iron to six feet below the hole. Birdie. At the par-5 13th, he tugged his second long and left of the green but chipped back to seven feet. Birdie again. At 15, he slung a long iron around the pines at the top of the fairway. His ball landed on the right side of the green, 50 feet from the hole. Two putts from there led to another birdie. “I made the swings I needed to,” Fowler said. 

When he arrived on the tee at 18 he was just two off the lead. Nerves? Not on this Sunday. Another smashed drive and pured approach left him five feet for birdie. Draino. “It was fun to get that birdie at the last and at least keep [Reed] honest and make him earn it,” he said.

If it feels like we’ve been here before with Fowler — a thisclose finish at a major — that’s because we have. This was Fowler’s eighth top-five in the majors, which is historic stuff. Only three players have more top-fives in the majors without a win: Jay Haas, Harry Cooper and Lee Westwood. A distinguished group of players certainly, but not a club Fowler wants to join permanently.

“I am ready to go win a major,” Fowler said Sunday evening, “but this was kind of the first major week that I understood that and know that and felt that.”

The epiphany didn’t come during his electric finish, it came in the third round. “I didn’t feel my best,” he said. “I felt like I had to just really stick to my game plan and kind of fight through a few times where I may not have felt comfortable.” Without his A-game, Fowler carded five birdies and an eagle on his way to a 65.

Ultimately, though, it’s the first two rounds that cost him. Fowler’s 70-72 start left him too far back to reel in Reed.

In the short term this week should help quiet some of the questions about Fowler’s ability to perform on a major Sunday but this Masters will soon be in the rearview mirror and the questions will return. They always do, and Fowler knows it.

Before the presiding green coat excused Fowler from his press conference Sunday evening, the runner-up took one last question. 

“My next goal?” Fowler said, repeating the query. “Win a major. We’re close.”