AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rickie Fowler was brilliant on Sunday, six under on Augusta National’s last 11 holes. He was all the things we said he wasn’t: plucky, artistic, steadfast. When the pressure was at its most suffocating, he was composed. When the moment called, he answered. A performance golf has been waiting, pleading, to see from Fowler.
Yes, Rickie Fowler was everything we wanted and more on Sunday. But Rickie Fowler is going home without the green jacket.
It was a daunting ask, a five-shot deficit over 18 holes. “I mean, I’m a ways back,” he remarked Saturday night, marred with an air of concession.
Through seven holes on Sunday, that sentiment rang true. Augusta National can punish overaggressiveness, but Fowler was too conservative, failing to give himself reasonable looks at birdie. It was uninspired golf for someone in the penultimate group. There were signs of life with birdies at Nos. 8 and 9, but Fowler remained four back at the turn.
“I didn’t have the front nine that I quite needed,” Fowler said Sunday night.
Coupled with Patrick Reed’s steady play and a surge from Jordan Spieth, Fowler became a bit of an afterthought. Another notch on the “Fowler’s closed on Sundays” belt.
Except that’s not the story that shook out. This time, Fowler mounted a charge of his own. One inspired by his buddy Spieth.
“I didn’t look at the scoreboards a whole lot today, but I wanted to kind of check in and see where things were at around the turn,” Fowler said. “I saw Jordan was off and running today. That was kind of a kick in the butt. I knew I needed a good back nine, but to see one of your buddies playing well … I knew what I needed to do.”
That’s an important detail, knowing what he had to do. One of the criticisms lobbed at Fowler is he lacks that extra firepower, the gear you need when the going gets tough. It’s not that he necessarily wilts; it’s that he stays level when he needs to rise.
But rise he did, starting with pars on the tricky 10th and monstrous 11th. Then his irons, the ones that had been quiet until then, roared at the 12th, his tee shot settling within 10 feet. He cashed in the putt, and headed to the 13th at 11 under.
He overcooked his second at the par 5, his approach settling behind the green. From a precarious spot, he got his ball to nine feet. Facing a slippery sidewinder, there was never a doubt where the putt was heading, dunking into the cup to send Fowler to 12 under.
He got through the 14th without incident and converted a two-putt birdie on the 15th, but Reed birdied the 14th to keep the advantage at two. Hoping to make something happen on the 16th, Fowler put his approach in the bunker. A bogey loomed, one that would drown his title hopes. Instead, he made a marvelous sand shot, one that almost went in. He tapped in his par to remain in shouting distance.
“I had a nice aiming point at the edge of the back bunker across the green,” Fowler said. “I hit my spot … I thought it had a chance to go in.”
Still, he was running out of holes. After pounding a drive on the 17th, Fowler was left with 150 yards and change.
“I thought I flagged it,” Fowler said. “I made the perfect swing, started it 15 feet left and it was just cutting in there and it fell directly down the flagstick. I thought I was going to have something definitely inside eight feet.”
It was the perfect swing, but not perfect result. The ball spun off the green. He was able to give it a whack with the putter, but no dice.
He walked to the 18th, a hole named “Holly,” which sounds inviting but is not, requiring the most precise drive down the tightest corridor. Fowler did just that, piping one 300 yards. He absolutely, positively needed a birdie to have any chance. His approach to seven feet gave him just that.
Every golfer, no matter their talent level, has played the game on the putting green. “And this putt, to win the Masters.” But as he walked up the 18th fairway, Fowler faced a far more challenging roll. As Larry Bird once noted, anyone can take the game-winning jumper if it’s tied. It takes a special player to do so knowing the game’s over if you miss.
Fowler, the one who’s drive and mettle have been questioned arguably more than anyone else in the sport, proved he can be that guy. As the patrons rose, Fowler’s birdie dropped. A 32 on the back, 67 on Sunday at the Masters.
“I gave it my all,” Fowler said. “I left everything out there on the golf course.”
Unfortunately for Fowler, Reed took care of his business, making par on the final four holes. Fowler bested Reed by four on the day, but it was a shot short of a playoff.
“He’s a fighter, especially when he gets in contention,” Fowler said of Reed. “He’s going to grind it out.”
The same could be said of Fowler. Yes, he now has eight top-five finishes without a major, which can look like a Scarlett Letter. However, perhaps for the first time, he showed he has what it takes to get that monkey off his back. More importantly, he knows it too.
“It feels a lot different,” Fowler said. “This is the most, I mean, I am ready to go win a major, but this was kind of the first major week that I understood that and known that and felt that.”
While it’s easy to get lost in the moment, that’s a confidence not easily forgotten. A confidence that has Fowler looking to what’s ahead.
“I’m ready to go,” Fowler said. “You know, Shinnecock is one of my favorite golf courses in the U.S. I haven’t been to the other two (Carnoustie and Bellerive). But should be a very good major season.”
When he left, Fowler was greeted by fans and well-wishers. The way they cheered, you would have thought he won the green jacket. Which is apropos. No, Rickie Fowler didn’t win the Masters. But, for the first time on a major Sunday, he turned in a champion performance.