Rickie Fowler holds on and closes out to win Honda Classic
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Rickie Fowler began the final round of the Honda Classic with a four-shot lead. Hand him the trophy, right? Well, not necessarily. If it hadn’t been incredibly blustery at a difficult track like PGA National, with probably the most intimidating stretch of holes near the end with the Bear Trap — nos. 15-17, then, sure, it would’ve been a done deal.

But as one colleague noted, “I’ve seen this movie before,” meaning Fowler has experienced some scar tissue when he’s held the 54-hole lead and not managed to close the deal on the PGA Tour. The most recent occasion occurred at Riviera in 2016 when he led by a shot, but struggled in the final round and posted a three-over 74 to finish tied for seventh.

I think it’s safe to say that was relatively fresh or somewhere in the back of his mind. Which actually makes this victory quite a big deal for Fowler. I mean, getting over that mental hurdle wasn’t an easy feat, especially when he had not managed to hold on to win the previous four times he had either led/co-led after 54 holes during his PGA Tour career. (FYI: He led after 54 holes in Abu Dhabi at a European Tour event last year and closed the deal.)

Q. What was more important or more meaningful about you winning today: The fact that you had gone longer than you wanted to without a win, or the fact that you had a four-shot lead and closed it out?
RICKIE FOWLER: Well, I guess finally closing out a 54-hole lead.

Q. On this tour.
RICKIE FOWLER: On this tour. It was very similar to the win I had in Abu Dhabi where I had a lead. I gave myself a cushion, gave some back and then had to fight back and ultimately play well on the back nine. Easier conditions when I played over there. This is a bit different, finer lines on the golf course and some wind involved.

Being out front and getting the job done, especially with giving some back and having to fight back with it.

Sure, it wasn’t pretty. And no, he didn’t break par, posting a one-over 71. Fowler’s scorecard looks kinda bipolar, actually, with four bogeys, a double-bogey, and five birdies. It was eventful, to say the least.

On the fourth hole, he was in a collection area by the green and opted to putt (which I would have 10 out of 10 times) and holed it…into a sprinkler head that was kind of in his line. It looks like it was a poor putt and perhaps he may have read it incorrectly, but I have never been a fan of the sprinkler head on the fringe rule. I mean, according to the Rules of Golf, it’s an immovable obstruction and you get relief if a sprinkler head interferes with your lie, stance and/or swing, but not if it’s in your line. Just saying, it’s manmade… I felt like golf geeks fired up, so I trolled them. (And then I took it even further with a hot take on divots — not really a hot take, but just saying I hate divots in the middle of the fairway, encouraging people to come at me.)

That putt did like a 360 around the sprinkler head! What a shot, but not the right hole… He walked away with a bogey. It wasn’t until the par-4 6th when things got a little dicey after his drive ended up in the water. The tension was real. He made a double-bogey. It wasn’t quite code red yet, but it was a little nerve-wracking since, well, tough conditions and scar tissue. However, he managed to steady the ship on the back nine and rolled in three birdies before he dropped his tee shot on the par-3 17th into the water. It was all good, though, because he had a five-shot lead at that point. He hit a great shot from the drop area and made bogey. And he also bogeyed the final hole. “To be in the position I was after 54 holes here, give myself that cushion, allowed for a tough day today,” said Fowler. “With the wind, there weren’t a whole lot of low scores. I think there were some early on. Some guys made some good moves. But other than that, like I said, I gave myself enough cushion where I could kind of get away a bad nine, which I started with, and then lucky enough, the putter saved me at times and gave me that cushion I needed on 12 and 13, and made a great swing into 16. “Really, it was just get it to the house from there. I wish I wouldn’t have made the bad swing I did on 17. It really wasn’t as bad as it looked. I mean, wind is just pumping out of the left and just hung it up there in the wind right a little bit.” Indeed, he rolled the putter and holed plenty of putts. He finished the week second in the field in strokes gained putting. Fowler acknowledged his ballstriking wasn’t necessarily worse today than the previous day, but the misses were exaggerated by the wind. Prior to Sunday, conditions were quite tame for the tournament compared to some previous years. And when it blows and there’s water everywhere you look at PGA National, it can get ugly real quick. “I would say today was somewhat similar to yesterday, maybe a little worse,” said Fowler, referring to his ballstriking. “But it’s just some of the bad shots or bad swings are just so exaggerated by the wind, that it may look a lot worse than what it was. “This golf course, without wind, it only gives you a little bit of wiggle room. Once there is wind and it starts to play a lot tougher, if you miss your window, just by a degree it seems like, good luck. “So you’ve got to be pretty on point. And luckily, I was enough but there was definitely some areas that were a little off. It could have been a little bit more of I guess a simpler round. We decided to throw some bogeys and a double in there. “But I’m happy about the week. Just being able to piece it together, getting off to a great start, just playing some consistent golf really minimizing mistakes and then on a day like today, it’s very tough to avoid mistakes on this kind of golf course with the wind.”

  However, Johnny Miller, of course, wasn’t that impressed with Fowler. “It’s hard to criticize a guy with a five shot lead, but it’s been a tiring round,” said Miller. “There was nothing easy about it, except for those long birdie putts. Nobody put any pressure on him.” When informed of Miller’s comment during his press conference and asked for his reaction, Fowler was ever-consistent, giving politically correct, non-answer.  “Well, I started with a four-shot lead and I still won by four, so I didn’t play great,” said Fowler, without much change in his expression. “It wasn’t a pretty round. But we got the job done. A win’s a win.” One day I would love for Fowler to lose the filter and get mad, a la Rory.  

This was amusing: Golf Channel’s stats guru Justin Ray tweeted that Hideki Matsuyama, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Fowler have a combined 25 worldwide wins since January 2016. To which, McIlroy RT’d with a crack at Miller. 

Well, IMHO, it *is* impressive. See, we’re in an exciting new era in golf. It’s a new day! Let’s focus on these exciting, great young players. I’m all about nostalgia and the good old days, but the Tiger era has been over for years. I mean, the golden years ended nearly a decade ago. I know it’s been hard to accept and move on, but it’s time. Half of these players in this new generation have been around for quite a while, believe it or not, but they’re not dominating the Tour and it’s fun to watch. If you’re one of those, I’m a big golf fan, but I still only want to watch Tiger — I hate to break it to you, but you’re not truly a golf fan; you’re a Tiger fan.

What’s also cool is these players cheering each other on. I mean, texting has been around for over 20 years, but not the way it is now. I was text messaging in 2000, but I doubt most of the guys on the PGA Tour were back then.

“(Tiger) texted me last night, as well, and told me to go get it done,” said Fowler. “Like I said, it’s great to have the backing of my peers. Like I said, it’s motivating to see them play well, as well.

“Rory did text me, Jordan obviously, Justin who was out on 18 green. It’s great to have the support of guys that I have either looked up to, enjoy watching, love seeing them play well, and I want to see those guys play well. And we all want to beat each other when everyone is at their best.

“So you know, like I was talking about earlier, looking forward to having Rory back. Hopefully that’s this coming week. And then Jordan, I think we’ll see him next week obviously. It’s a lot of fun. We’ve got a great group of guys. I think there was — I had a bunch of texts. I didn’t get back to everything and there’s more. I still feel it going off, which is a good thing. We’ll deal with that later.”

Another observation: Nearly every week, players will wait around and be there on the 18th green to congratulate their friend(s). When I first started covering the Tour in 2010/2011, this did not happen with the same frequency. It was pretty rare. I saw it maybe once a year, but it wasn’t a “thing,” like it has been on the LPGA for quite a while now.

I don’t think Tiger was texting any pals in his heyday before the final round. He was too busy… never mind. Cheap shot. Couldn’t help it.

Of this group of young stars, Fowler was candid and fair in his assessment that he still had some catching up to do, particularly because he is one of the three in those named above that hasn’t won a major yet.

“I still need to put myself in position, be consistent and win some more golf tournaments,” said Fowler when asked where he ranks among the current flock of elite players. “Obviously seeing what Hideki was doing end of last year, start of this year; even Justin Thomas going on a run; Dustin’s always been an impressive player. I mean, what is it, ten years now, he’s won on TOUR every year at least once. And obviously Rory, Jordan, Jason; I’ll try and sneak in the back end right now.

“But I want to continue to play well and I want to be, whether I’m talked about with those guys or not, I just want to play the best that I can and keep pushing myself and ultimately just keep trying to put myself in position to win and start collecting more of these.”

More important, Fowler will be aiming to win another title for the fourth time on Monday. It’s a big one — the member-pro at Seminole. He’s won it three times! Considering the field might be stronger than this week’s at the Honda Classic, that’s rather impressive.

Q. I understand you’re playing in the Seminole Pro-Member tomorrow again and I’m wondering where does that rank for you, like some people joke, it’s the fifth major, so what makes it so special and what would a fourth title at that event make — mean to you?
RICKIE FOWLER: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. My buddy and I have won it three times. It’s a great event.

For me, I look at THE PLAYERS as a pretty good event and I put that up there. So THE PLAYERS Championship is pretty special.

But the Seminole Pro-Member, it’s a great day. A lot of pros, obviously, show up. It’s fun. It’s kind of fun but serious, but everyone acts like they are just having a good time but they are being very serious.

For me, it’s a special day because I had a day there a few years back that I’ll never forget. I got to play with the King. So I got to go 18 holes with Arnie. So yeah, Seminole is always going to be special for that reason.

Q. What would a fourth title at that event mean?
RICKIE FOWLER: I don’t care anymore. I got to play with Arnie, fourth title, cool. But that was a special day.

Fingers crossed we are able to cross the wall to Mexico! Wish me luck!