Hideki Matsuyama outlasted Rickie Fowler in a playoff, making par on the last hole in sudden death to capture his second PGA Tour victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Well, I certainly put my foot in my mouth, so to speak (when I tweeted that Rickie had locked up the win after his tee shot on 16, but hey, I wasn’t the only one!). That’s why you don’t call golf tournaments with two holes to play, but really, those holes aren’t very hard. I, like others watching, figured he’d play it safe on the risk-reward drivable par-4 17th and tee off with an iron — or at most, a fairway wood. Right?
Apparently not. That’s where it all went awry.
Fowler, who had a two-shot lead with two holes to play, pulled driver on the penultimate hole in regulation. He had been absolutely striping his driver all day, so it was a bit of a curious decision, with the danger of having too much club, especially since water guards the left and back side of the green, not to mention his playing partners Matsuyama and Danny Lee both hit 3-wood.
It was extremely unfortunate what happened, but I think we have to chalk it up to a course management error. I mean, can you imagine Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller EVER making that mistake? Hell-to-the-NO! And no, before anyone even thinks I’m going there, I don’t really think Fowler choked. After all, he hit some clutch shots and showed guts in the playoff.
The worst case scenario happened to Fowler and he essentially lost it on the 17th in regulation — not when it ended as the fourth hole in the playoff against Hideki Matsuyama. Fowler hit a solid drive (perhaps too good) and it came off the club face super hot. With the warm conditions, things had firmed up quite a bit and the ball landed kind of on the downslope and just took off, rolling off the back of the green. It never had a chance of NOT going into the water hazard.
Fowler made bogey, while Matsuyama, who went into the hole trailing by two strokes, tapped-in for birdie. Two-shot swing. All square heading into 18.
“Both my caddie and I thought that driver would be perfect, just hit a little cut driver,” said Fowler after the tough loss in the playoff. “I hit a perfect shot. Kind of got a little bit of bad break, landed on the downslope and it goes I think an extra 60 yards from where it landed in the water. We ended up making bogey.
“That was a little unfortunate. Kind of ruined the game plan coming in.”
Added Matsuyama, who spoke through a translator: “(Rickie) hit a perfect drive in regulation at 17. I’m surprised it went into the water. It was a great shot. Just the outcome wasn’t what I expected, and I’m sure Rickie, too.
“Fowler and Matsuyama both found the fairway off the tee and both hit pure approach shots all over the pin. While Matsuyama had 18 feet for birdie, Fowler only had six. Both rolled their putts in to extend the Phoenix Open into a sudden-death playoff.”
Give it up to Matsuyama for not letting down even when it looked like Fowler had locked up the victory with a few holes to play. He kept fighting and ultimately wore down Fowler, who had lost momentum on the 17th in regulation.
“Up until even after the 15th hole it didn’t look very good,” said Matsuyama in his post-win presser. “Then Rickie opened the door for me, and I was able to walk through it. It feels really good.”
He was especially pleased with the massively clutch putt he drained in regulation on 18.
“The putt I made there was probably the best putt I have ever made in my life,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fowler and Matsuyama continued to trade shots in the playoff. Both knocked pure drives down the middle almost next to each other on the first extra hole, the par-4 18th. Matsuyama hit a solid approach to 25 feet, while Fowler hit his a little fat and came up just short of the green. However, he hit a routine little chip and tapped-in for par. Matsuyama missed his birdie putt and back to the 18th tee they went to gut it out again.
Once again, both striped their drives down the middle and hit it both inside of 15 feet. Fowler putt first and drained his, but Matsuyama stood up to the pressure and made his on top. Now, the pair headed to the par-4 10th. Fowler’s drive ended up in the rough and he thinned it and his ball went over the green. He chipped it to 10 feet, but came through in the clutch (I feel like I’ve typed that word a lot already) and drained it. Matsuyama two-putted from about 50 feet and back to the 17th they would go.
That short par-4 probably isn’t Fowler’s favorite hole at this point. He pulled 3-wood the second time around, but he pulled it into the hazard.
“It’s a good number with 3-wood obviously with everything going on,” said Fowler. “I hit it solid. Just hit it a little high on the face and it just got up and left a little quicker than I was expecting and wanted to. So that’s all that happened there.”
Matsuyama also hit 3-wood, but hit it really poorly, reacting with disgust. However, he was still safely on the right side of the fairway just short of the green. Fowler dropped and pitched to about 7 feet, while Hideki is just inside him for birdie. Fowler goes first and misses his par save, which meant Matsuyama simply has to two-putt for the win. He missed his birdie try, but safely tapped-in to beat Fowler, and thus, achieving his primary goal he set for 2016.
“Well, winning my second tournament on the PGA Tour was my utmost goal for this year, so now I’m going to go home tonight and rethink the next goal,” said Matsuyama.
IT GOT DUSTY
This close call is going to take a little bit to get over for Fowler, who was sniffling and had blood-shot eyes afterwards.
“It’s gonna hurt because I felt like I had it, especially with the way I was swinging,” said Fowler, who walked into the interview room looking like he was going to lose it any moment. “17, it was 304 front and then we had an extra, it’s like 26 or, I don’t know, there’s 30-some yards until the back bunker. It’s 330-plus.
“I figured I’m hitting a chip-cut driver. Usually don’t expect it to hit on the downslope and then go 360.
“So that was a bit unfortunate. I hit it right online, hit it exactly where I was looking. That’s kind of the unfortunate part to hit the shots that I did and to pull them off and then it kind of backfired there. I hit a perfect shot.”
Too perfect. Hate to say this, but that’s why he should have never had driver in his hands to begin with. If there was the slightest possibility of hitting it too far, he should’ve played it back. I know he choked up on the club and didn’t swing at it 100%, but that’s not the point. He simply didn’t need to play that aggressive. This is also an example of what makes Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller so good in such situations — they would have talked it through and made the “smart” call. Their course management expertise is extremely underrated.
Fowler had many friends and family, including both his mother and father and his grandparents, in attendance cheering him on. His dad and grandparents had never seen him win in person, so that would have been very special for them. That was the hardest part for Fowler, who, then, completely broke down in tears when he was asked to answer the question.
“The hard part is having, you know, all my friends and family and grandpa and my dad who haven’t seen me win,” said Fowler, who was visibly getting choked up at this point. “But I will be able to kinda hang with them tonight.
“I’ll be all right. With how good I’m playing, I know I can win. That’s the hard part.”
He walked out the back door with emotions running high and tears running down his face. It was just brutal to watch. You had to feel for him.
*UPDATE: There is video of part of Rickie’s brief presser. I didn’t think the Tour would let that happen!
— Cameron Cox (@CamCox12) February 8, 2016
HOME-COUNTRY ADVANTAGE Everyone was rooting for the popular Fowler, of course. There were at least half a dozen girls screeching “RICKIIIIIIIIEEEEEEE” in my ear during the playoff, so thanks for that! Matsuyama handled himself well, even when the crowd cheered because he had missed a putt. Q. Going head to head in sudden death against Rickie, one of the most popular players on tour, fan favorite here, did you kind of feel like the underdog? HIDEKI MATSUYAMA: (Through translation.) Yeah, they were for Rickie, weren’t they? And I’d say probably 99% of the gallery were cheering hard for Rickie. But that gave me the motivation to go out and do it and win.
RICKIE’S FRIENDS (AND ALMOST PRANKED BY DANNY LEE)
Danny Lee showed up to support his pal Fowler during the playoff. As you may know, the pair have an ongoing prank war, which was temporarily halted after Lee was fined when he wrote on Fowler’s courtesy car with a Sharpie marker. But, Lee was ready to revive things if Fowler won. I found Danny behind the 18th green holding a bottle of orange juice and he explained he had brought it up with him to help Rickie celebrate. “White pants,” he said with a mischievous smile. Lee planned to spray Fowler’s white pants with the bottle of orange juice, so it would look like he had an accident for all the victory lap pictures. I kind of wish Rickie would have won just so I could have seen that! Meanwhile, Bubba Watson, who was in gym shorts and a t-shirt, walked up a few minutes later holding a bottle of water. He explained he had gone home (and adding bitterly that people don’t actually realize he has a house in the area), after firing a five-under 66 to finish T14. He also went to his pal Aaron Baddeley’s house because he was having a Super Bowl party, but found that no one was there. That’s when he figured out what was happening and headed back to the golf course. When Danny told Bubba about his OJ plan, Watson said he had brought the water for the same reason. “You go high and I’ll go low,” quipped Danny. Oh man, that would have been funny for the pictures…
Early in the week, Bubba Watson flat out said he didn’t like TPC Scottsdale and the changes that had been made ahead of last year’s Phoenix Open. He literally said he was only playing in the tournament because three of his sponsors are based in the area and love the tournament. Then, he backtracked and apologized on Friday. The record-breaking 200,000-plus crowd on Saturday, particularly on the notorious par-3 16th, predictably shared their feelings about Bubba loudly and crudely. He was boo’d loudly and the fans cheered when he missed his birdie putt. When he tried to win them back by throwing shirts into the stands, people yelled to throw them back and they did. Hundreds of people were cursing at him — the F-bomb was a fan favorite. Oh, someone also told him to go to Dubai next year instead. Well, Bubba’s feelings were hurt. After all, he has a house in Scottsdale/Phoenix, and the damn media *twisted* his words around. I’m not sure how you can spin “I don’t like the course” or “I’m here because of my sponsors.”
Q. I wondered how you felt about that show of support with the Thunderbirds. BUBBA WATSON: That was very nice. A player reached out to the tour yesterday. I don’t want to say his name unless he says it. He reached out to the tour and said it’s the worst thing he’s ever seen. He said, I don’t know why you played today, Bubba. As much support I have given this city, the charity dollars that I have helped in this city — and when I say “city,” Scottsdale and Phoenix. The first batch of drivers we sold in 2012 went to the Children’s Hospital. The last three years we went to the Mission on Friday afternoon, made snack-packs for the kids. Made 1,200 this year. I have lived here for the last eight winters. And for somebody to turn my words around — when I say “turn my words around,” we don’t read articles; we read headlines. And the headline was a bad headline. Made me look bad. For me, it really hurt me yesterday. It really hurt me a lot. Today was different. It’s a different crowd today. Less people, so it makes your life better. But it really hurt me a lot, hurt my family a lot to see that and know how much we have supported this city, been behind this city. Again, when I say “city,” make sure I word that right, Phoenix and Scottsdale. It was pretty sad. Q. How was the week on you? BUBBA WATSON: I mean, this is the stuff that pushes athletes away, you know. For my words to get twisted — and when I say “words,” again, let me word that the right way, the headline made it — if you read the whole article, you can see the good and the bad, but it was nothing against the fans, the city, the people. I said the Thunderbirds, PGA TOUR, Waste Management, the sponsor here, they do a great job. To see this many people come out, it’s our biggest tournament in the year fan base-wise. Obviously we’d rather win a major. But it’s the biggest fan base-wise. So it’s pretty sad. Again, it was heartbreaking. And this is what pushes athletes away in many sports when the media starts putting labels on you. Very heartbreaking. I can take it. I mean, I took it like a man. My worst round I have ever shot here. I have a chance to come in top 10, but yesterday really hurt me.
Mmmmk. I don’t think Bubba *can* actually take it, though.
The Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos are about to kick off (or already have by the time this post will be published). Who are you cheering for? Me? A good game. But in case you wanted to know where Tiger Woods’ loyalties lie, he’s rooting for his pal Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Peyton and the Broncos all day! #SB50
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) February 7, 2016
Thanks to the two people who read this post, especially if you got to the end. I missed a Super Bowl party with a bunch of my best friends from college — who are here for “Man Day” — to write this because IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FANS. Hope everyone had a good time tonight and drive safe! That’s all from Scottsdale!
Many thanks to Talking Stick for their hospitality and to my friends for letting me crash part of their weekend!