PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Nothing was overrated about Rickie Fowler at The Players Championship.
Not the way he rallied from a five-shot deficit with the greatest finish in the 34-year history of the TPC Sawgrass. Not the two tee shots he smashed down the daunting 18th fairway Sunday when a miss to the left or right spelled trouble. And certainly not the three tee shots – yes, three – he stuffed on the island-green 17th hole for birdie each time.
The last one made him a winner, the best answer to that anonymous player survey that he was an underachiever.
At a tournament that dresses up like a major, Fowler sure looked the part in beating the strongest field in golf.
“I’d say this was a pretty big one,” Fowler said.
It certainly wasn’t easy. Fowler’s record-setting finish – birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie on the last four holes for a 5-under 67 – looked like a winner until Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner delivered big shots of their own.
In the first three-hole playoff at The Players, Kisner hit his tee shot on the par-3 17th to 10 feet and rolled in a breaking birdie putt to keep pace with Fowler, who had hit his tee shot to 6 feet and converted the birdie. Garcia, who in regulation made a 45-foot birdie to give him new life, failed to repeat the putt from about the same range in the playoff. All three players made par on the final hole, which eliminated Garcia.
Fowler and Kisner, who closed with a 69 and is now 0 for 102 in his PGA Tour career, headed back to the 17th hole for the third time. The great shots kept coming. Kisner barely cleared the mound and the ball settled 12 feet away. Fowler answered by taking on the right side of the green and sticking it just inside 5 feet.
Kisner finally missed.
Fowler never seemed to miss over the final two hours, and he calmly clutched his fist to celebrate his first PGA Tour victory in three years.
Garcia, who had a two-shot lead heading to the back nine, closed with a 68. He had a 20-foot birdie putt to win in regulation that missed badly to the right. And he faced a crowd that was increasingly hostile to the Spaniard, perhaps remembering the tiff he had with Tiger Woods two years ago.
His caddie was asking for security when he made the turn. In the three-hole playoff, a small group of fans yelled, “USA!” as he took the putter back.
It marred what was other sheer brilliance, a most unforgettable final hour in a tournament that has a history of them.
For Fowler, the timing couldn’t have been better.
One of the questions in SI Golf’s annual player survey – players do not give their names – was to pick the most overrated player on the PGA Tour. Fowler and Ian Poulter shared first place at 24 percent. Fowler has never faced this level of criticism, a favorite among fans and most players for his considerate behavior.
He tried to play it down, though he said on more than one occasion this week that it would motivate him.
He was at 6 under, five shots behind Garcia, when he hit a 9-iron to 12 feet on the 13th hole and “hit the button.”
What he hit was warp speed.
Fowler made a 15-foot birdie on the 15th hole. He took on the water at the par-5 15th with a shot into a slight breeze to 30 inches for eagle. Not at all daunted by an island green, he went at the flag and made it for 6 feet to take the lead for the first time. And then he blasted a tee shot 331 yards and made a 15-foot birdie on the 18th hole to be the first player to reach 12-under 276. And then he had to wait.
The Stadium Course has rarely lacked for greater theater over the last three decades.
This topped them all.
Over the final hour, six players had hopes of winning the richest prize in golf. Four of them were tied for the lead.
Ben Martin raced into the picture with three straight birdies, the last one an 8-footer after taking on the corner of the island on the par-3 17th. But he pushed his tee shot into the woods on the 18th, pitched out and missed his par putt for a 70 that knocked him out of the playoff.
Bill Haas had a chance to tie for the lead twice – first with a 10-foot eagle putt on the par-5 16th that just missed to the left, and then with a long birdie putt on the 17th that stopped one turn from falling in on the left side. Needing a birdie on the 18th to join the playoff, he had to play a runner to the green because he was blocked by trees. It came up short and he made par for a 70.
Fowler was the most sensational.
The finish by Garcia and Kisner would have been talked about for years. On this day, thanks to Fowler, it was nearly an afterthought.
Garcia two-putted from 70 feet from the fringe for a birdie at the 16th, and then rolled in his improbable birdie at the 17th. He missed from 20 feet on the 18th. Kisner, who twice made big putts in a losing effort to Jim Furyk at Hilton Head last month, got up-and-down for birdie on the 16th and holed a 10-footer for birdie on the 17th.
He had a 10-foot birdie putt for the win, and it touched the right side of the cup.
Tiger Woods had a 72 and tied for 69th, his worst position ever in The Players Championship. Rory McIlroy, who started the final round four shots behind, didn’t get going until it was too late. He closed with a 70 and tied for eighth, four shots behind.