Thanks to a spectacular Sunday showdown, the PGA Tour's flagship event lived up to the hype and in Rickie Fowler produced a champion who silenced skeptics with a 10-hole finishing kick that suggested he's anything but overrated
JAY HAAS—captain of your 2015 U.S. Presidents Cup team, father of your 2015 Humana Challenge winner—was at TPC Sawgrass last week, scouting talent, watching his son play and wondering what the Players Championship had to do to get a little respect.
Haas, 61, compared the PGA Tour's flagship event to Wimbledon, in the way grass is green and inviting on opening day and brown and nasty by week's end. And the Masters, in the way that we, the viewing public, know the finishing holes like we know the path from the TV room to the fridge. The winner's list at the Players speaks for itself: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd in the early years; Davis Love, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods in Stage II. But now we're in Stage III.
It began on Mother's Day '15. It began with the sudden late-afternoon appearance of a golfing troika that put on a show that was better than most. It was wildly entertaining and athletic, although in other places they're probably just calling it "good TV." Sergio García's stock price, floundering most of the year, moved 50 points north. As for the second banana, Kevin Kisner was a revelation. We would be smart to keep an eye on this 31-year-old, with his BRF (Google as needed) and scared-of-nothing attitude. Look out, Jimmy Walker: K-man is coming at ya!
Which leads us to the lead player in this hastily assembled trio, 26-year-old Rickie Fowler, who won his second Tour event last week and his first ... no, not a major, but something. Can we have a moment to gather our thoughts?
Much has already been said, and properly so, about the stunning down-the-stretch play—driving, wedging, putting—Fowler exhibited at the Players. Much has been said about how he shut up the anonymous Tour players who named him, in a recent poll conducted by SI, as the most overrated player on the PGA Tour, along with Ian Poulter. Asked about the poll in a post-tournament press conference, Fowler, by no means loquacious, patted his winner's tower of Waterford crystal and said, "I think this right here answers anything you need to know."
But all the voters were really saying was that Fowler's fame didn't match his accomplishments. It wasn't like the guys pulled Fowler's name out of a hat. Because of various Cobra, Puma, Red Bull and Crowne Plaza marketing campaigns, to say nothing of his stints as a cover boy for an assortment of golf magazines, Fowler was, before Mother's Day, the most famous one-win golfer the game had ever seen. Now he is the most famous two-win golfer.
FOWLER'S STATURE will, of course, now rise, appropriately so. Li'l Rickie—about Rory's height and wrestling in maybe the 145-pound class—often drove it 310 yards and longer on Sawgrass's firm fairways. (A shout-out to the Sawgrass course superintendent and the Tour's tournament staff—that's how you set up a golf course.) Fowler stuffed it close a bunch with his wedge stamped with GET SAUCY.
Using his I'm-ready-to-go putting stroke he sweet-spotted every putt over the final eight holes of the fourth round. Eight holes, Sunday pressure, 26 shots. Amazing. Then, after posting 12 under and waiting more than an hour to see if he would win from the range or have to play more golf, he continued to make beautiful putts in the playoff. The five-footer for a two on 17 and the win was a textbook lesson in no-fuss putting. Of course being 26 and on a roll helps.
Fowler has always been fun to watch. He enjoys himself. His own stunning troika—mother, sister, girlfriend—seemed to be, like us, having a whale of a time on Sunday too. What can you say about a guy who played the par-3 17th three times in less than three hours in six strokes (and birdied it on Thursday and Friday, to boot)? Somebody should name an isthmus for the man.
Maybe Jay Monahan will put that on his to-do list. The unofficial commissioner-in-waiting took one step closer to becoming the bossman last week, presiding over the closing ceremonies in Sunday's gorgeous dusk light. Tim Finchem watched from the wings, like a proud father.
The Tour bosses have much to celebrate. Between Fowler, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Jason Day and other twentysomethings, the PGA Tour is loaded with young talent, appealing and rising. Meanwhile, an equal number of veterans, including García, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott, are more than hanging around. Golf needs cast members. Really, there weren't enough in the Tiger era.
What made the Mother's Day golf so extraordinary was not just Fowler's play. It was the combined efforts of Fowler, García and Kisner, and performing on that particular stage. (One of the delights was their pace of play, especially after they got into the playoff.) You need that combination. That's why people are still talking about the '75 Masters, when Big Jack won by a shot over Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller, who called last week's event for NBC.
The Players had good camerawork and telegenic players, and the course, for whatever reason, never looked or played better. The tournament was a dud through three rounds, but when the elements finally came together it was fierce—a perfect storm.
The delight of it all was the surprise.
Fowler, García and Kisner played their way into the playoff by touring the last three holes in their Sunday rounds in a collective eight under par. They were in different groups, and their fireworks show was spaced out over the course of two hours. Kisner was in the final twosome, García in the third-to-last and Fowler five groups ahead of the Spaniard. Talk about a Sunday afternoon picture show.
SO, WE'VE done our gathering. We've turned off Johnny and Brandel, we have read Karen Crouse, we have excised those breathless Tour-approved promo spots for the event. Here's where we stand.
The 2015 Players Championship, won by Rickie Fowler in a playoff that featured a total of 40 memorable shots, wasn't the second coming of the Match at Cypress Point in 1956. (Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson beating Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, not on TV.) It wasn't the '86 Masters. (Big Jack winning number six at 46, best golf on TV ever.) It wasn't the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. (Tiger over Rocco.) But it was some of the most exciting Sunday golf ever played in a Tour event. More significantly, and over time, it will raise the stature of the Players Championship in important ways.
The Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open are in a class by themselves. They are the three major majors, because of how they are viewed throughout the kingdom of golf. When those three events are played, the rest of golf stops what it is doing and watches. But what distinguishes the PGA Championship as golf's fourth major and the Players Championship as golf's fifth most-important event? It is getting harder and harder to say.
Time stopped late on Mother's Day at TPC Sawgrass. For Jay Haas following his son, Bill, who finished one shot out of the playoff. For Alexis Randock, Rickie's lady friend, who evidently does not take her fashion cues from Valerie Hogan. For Mrs. Kevin Kisner (Brittany), celebrating her first Mother's Day. For Fowler and García and Kisner. And for the millions of us watching them, playing holes where we might have lost one or more $6 ProV1s ourselves.
In Arnold Palmer's heyday, the Masters was a celebrated event, but it did not have near the stature of the U.S. Open and the British Open. Then an unbelievable run of tournaments, beautifully captured by CBS, from 1975 to '97, changed all that. Evolve or die, right? Players and fans who are Fowler's age and younger will decide where the Players goes from here, where it stands.
You're a high school golfer, watching last week. You ask yourself: Which would I rather win, the Players in May on TPC Sawgrass or a one-off PGA Championship at Trump National in August 2022? Which would you rather watch? Which would you rather attend? Kiddie fans—smartly mentioned by deputy commissioner Monahan at the golden-light trophy ceremony—will answer those questions without even thinking about them. Young minds work in mysterious ways.
Rickie Fowler has now won two of his last 73 Tour events. That may not sound like all that much, but you know otherwise. You know where he won, how he won and whom he beat. It was big-time, all the way around.
Fowler was the most famous one-win golfer the game had ever seen. Now he is the most famous two-win golfer.
The Players Championship is often won—or lost—on the diabolical final three holes at TPC Sawgrass. It's safe to say that Rickie Fowler won the Players by virtue of his performance on the closing stretch. In fact, he became the first champion to birdie the 72nd hole since Steven Elkington in 1997. Here is how the three playoff participants performed on the holes for the week.
Photograph by Fred Vuich For Sports Illustrated
ISLAND PARADISE Fowler teed it up six times at the par-3 17th, but he needed only 13 shots to navigate the watery signature hole.
Photograph by Fred Vuich For Sports Illustrated
ROUNDABOUT Kisner, who at 31 was looking for his first Tour win, singed the lip with his birdie putt at the 72nd hole.
Photograph by Fred Vuich For Sports Illustrated
FOOT FAULT García played off the cart path (and sans shoes) at the par-4 14th, where he made a costly bogey.
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FOWLER)