Through the rain and disappointment, with all the expectations and fan support one can have, Rickie Fowler overcame a cavalcade of disasters to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
A two-time runner-up at TPC Scottsdale, Fowler led by as many as five shots in the final round Sunday and survived a shocking series of missteps to beat Branden Grace by two shots with a 17-under 267 for the week.
“I hope I never have to go through that again,” said Fowler, clutching a champagne glass more than an hour after he sank the winning putt to cap a 3-over 74 in the final round.
Fowler started to slip in the cold conditions with a double bogey at the par-4 fifth, and the wheels officially came off with a bizarre triple bogey at 11 and another bogey at 12.
He was still comfortably in the lead when his pitch shot at 11 rolled over the green and into the water. Fowler took a routine drop behind the green, but his ball rolled back into the water after he walked up to take a look at the green.
That led to multiple conversations with Slugger White, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competition, behind the green. They were still trying to figure out what he scored on the hole after Fowler rolled in a 16-foot putt for a 7 on the par 4.
As it played out, Fowler made the triple bogey because he was given a penalty when his ball – which was deemed to have been at rest – rolled back into the water, the same as if he had hit it into the lake. For those keeping score: It was his third shot into the lake on the chip, penalty for a fourth shot, fifth shot a penalty for the new ball rolling into the lake, then pitching his sixth shot onto the green. Bizarre.
After a subsequent bogey on 12, Fowler was suddenly one shot back of Grace, but he stood tall the rest of the way with birdies at 15 and 17 that proved to be the difference.
That set the stage for an emotional scene on the 18thgreen and near the scoring area. It was the first time in five career victories that Fowler’s dad, Rod, was in attendance, joined by mom Lynn, fiancée Allison Stokke, and a host of family and friends.
Rod was also in attendance in 2016, when Fowler gave up a two-shot lead with two holes to play and ultimately lost to Hideki Matsuyama in a playoff. Fowler was moved to tears and cited having his dad and grandpa in attendance as one of the reasons the loss was so tough.
“It’s so nice for us to know that it just takes a lot of pressure off his shoulders,” Rod said Sunday. “It’s gonna hopefully come a little easier now that he doesn’t have that extra pressure. I have a good feeling going into the majors this year.”
Given Fowler’s series of disappointing finishes at this place and the way things went south in a hurry on the back nine, everything boiled over in celebration.
That was also true for long-time caddie Joe Skovron, a Scottsdale resident who was headed to watch the second half of the Super Bowl and celebrate with friends in nearby Old Town.
“We’ve had so many close calls here,” Skovron said. “For me, this is the closest thing for a major, and for him I know this was a huge deal because of how it had gone down in the past. For it to start kind of slipping away there and for him to steady the ship and do it on a tough day rather than the shootout it normally is here, a gutsy win, I just think that’s gonna go a long ways for him in the future.”
It’s always about the future for Fowler considering his immense talent, marketability and lack of a major title at age 30. It had been nearly two years since Fowler’s last official win at the 2017 Honda Classic, though he did win the limited-field Hero World Challenge that December.
His most recent win was an undoubtedly gutsy performance, one that easily could have gone off the rails and provided more fuel for the anti-Fowler contingent. But if nerves were a factor, they didn’t show up on the greens – Fowler led the field in strokes gained putting for the week and was second-best in the final round.
In the end, it doesn’t change Fowler’s grand outlook or status as a player. He’s secure in his spot on the A-list and won’t take the next big step until he wins a major. That’s just how golf works.
Those are all outside opinions, though. Fowler seems more comfortable with his place in the game and in life than most players on Tour, let alone outside observers.
This win meant something different. It was deeply personal. It showed in the way Fowler slammed his fist toward the cup after sinking the winning putt and in the jubilation among his inner circle.
Fowler is not yet a major champion but he was undoubtedly the most popular player in the field, a fitting champion for the People’s Open and a win worth savoring rather than wondering what happens next.