Golf’s aristocracy has been enlarged to a quartet. Cynics once claimed Rickie Fowler could not be classed among the elite, that colour and character were not backed up by tangible reward. An anonymous survey of fellow players even insisted he was among the most overrated in this sport.
Fowler’s reply? A run since last May that has seen him win the Players Championship, the Scottish Open, the Deutsche Bank Championship and now the HSBC event in Abu Dhabi. Now he has come of age, with a trophy collection as proof. The employment of Butch Harmon as his coach, two years ago, seems to have been key to Fowler’s rocket-like acceleration.
Fowler is the fourth-ranked player in the world. The average age of the group, which also includes Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, is under 26. In the midst of constant concerns regarding golf’s allure and participation, its upper echelons has rarely exhibited such youthful vigour.
“I want to be playing against the best players in the world and beating the best players in the world,” Fowler said. “I’m looking forward to going into battle with those guys all year long and for the rest of our careers.”
Two moments of Fowler genius in Abu Dhabi encapsulated his brilliance. Having double-bogeyed the seventh hole of his final round, halving a four-shot lead, he drilled a driver from the eighth fairway straight into a green-side bunker. The extroverted Californian proceeded to hole out for eagle.
By the 17th, Fowler’s advantage had been slashed to one. McIlroy, who holed a stunning 35ft putt on the last, and Henrik Stenson lurked with intent. Fowler’s response was an astonishing one as he chipped in from off the green, inflicting a fatal blow on those around him.
Fowler has every right to class himself as one of the sport’s standard-bearers, having moved inside the world’s top five for the first time. All that remains to be added to his resume is a major championship; Royal Troon and the Open in July already look a target, even if Fowler has more immediate aims.
“The ultimate goal this year is to go win a major and this is a step in the right direction for sure,” he said. “It’s nice to have that added confidence now, really having the belief and knowing that come Sunday when I’m in the mix, I know I can go get it done.
“This is a great way to start 2016. It is nice to have the game where it’s at right now going into the season, instead of trying to work on things and trying to find stuff.
“Right now, I can go and fine tune and really build, ultimately for Augusta. I’d say this is really the first time I’ve had it in my career; how good I feel about my game and knowing where it’s at.”
In exalted company, Fowler reached 16 under par for a one-shot win. The seeds of impending triumph had been sewn during a third round of 65, amid which he did not record a single bogey.
McIlroy was among the first to welcome Fowler to the fab four party. “Everyone is talking about the big three and Rickie sort of needing to do something but if the four of us are top four in the world, it’s a nice narrative going into the meat of the golf season,” he said.
Jordan Spieth, displaying the tenacity so evident during a stunning 2015, raced through the field to the brief position of tied-fourth. He had to settle for one place worse and the admission after a closing 68 that the result probably outweighed the performance.
“We were off this week,” Spieth said. “I didn’t make anything on the greens. “Sometimes that happens, and we kind of ground out eight under on the weekend in what really could have been something special but it also could have been worse.”
McIlroy actually led the field on shots gained at 23, including 19 birdies and two eagles. Not for the first time at this venue, problems with the putter undermined his aspirations of glory. There was also a highly damaging spell during the Northern Irishman’s back nine to the third round and front half of the fourth; as played in one over par.
“I’ve always struggled with the greens here,” McIlroy said. “I felt like it was a bit better this week but I still missed a lot of opportunities.
“But at the same time, if I holed every putt that everyone thinks I should make, then I would win by 10. That’s just what it is. I do give myself so many chances, you can’t hole all of them, but I’d like to at least hole my fair share. And I know if I do that, most weeks, I’m going to be really close.
“I feel my game is in good shape going into this run that I’ve got coming up. It’s a busy schedule going into the Masters. I would have liked to have started the season just that little bit better with a win but I feel my performance here, I can take plenty away from it and build on it and build gradually up towards the first major of the season.”
The highly rated huge-hitting Belgian Thomas Pieters upstaged McIlroy and Stenson by claiming second place. Pieters bounced back from a second-round 73 to card 64 and 67.
“I did a lot of work Friday night with my coach, Pete Cowen, just trying to find some more fairways because I wasn’t really finding any,” Pieters said. “Just finding those fairways and working on the swing a little bit and gave myself more chances. I’m a little bit disappointed, some more putts could have dropped for me, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Pieters continues to take baby steps. Fowler, on the other hand, has been afforded large strides; the Masters cannot come quickly enough, for onlookers as well as protagonists.
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