For all of his fans who were ardently pulling for him, Rickie Fowler took one on the chin on Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
With the tournament in hand on the 17th tee, he hit a perfect tee shot that landed on the downslope short of the driveable green, kicked up on the green, scooted all the way through the green and into the water hazard behind. He made bogey, Hideki Matsuyama made birdie and they were tied.
It was a terrific display of golf from 18 through the fourth playoff hole where Matsuyama won when Fowler hit it in the water at 17 again, this time short left with a more “prudent” 3-wood. Actually it was a terrific display of golf all day long by both men: stellar driving of the ball, bold approach shots into the green and amazing putts that caused you to hold your breath as they slowly rolled to the hole.
Q. You haven’t usually been this down in a long time. What will you do to get over it and how long will it take to get over it?
RICKIE FOWLER: I mean, the hard part is having, you know, all my friends and family and grandpa and my dad who haven’t seen me win. 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.
Q. How much will this sting? Walk us through the thought process on 17.
RICKIE FOWLER: I mean, it’s gonna hurt because I felt like I had it, especially with the way I was swinging. 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. 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. Hit a perfect shot.
Q. What about the second time you played 17? 3-wood or 5-wood?
RICKIE FOWLER: I went the 3-wood. It’s a good number with 3-wood obviously with everything going on. 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.
Q. What do you take from this? It’s got to hurt. You played awfully, awfully well this week.
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, I didn’t putt as well as I’d like to the last three days, but I feel like I handled myself well out there and controlled things well today. Made some really good swings. I take a lot of positives from this. We’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.
Don’t worry indeed. Fowler is one of the most emotionally balanced players out there. He has the advantage of knowing that he has thousands of fans because he cultivates them. He is forever referencing them and while he doesn’t interact with them that much when he’s in the heat of battle, his body language and glances make it clear that he appreciates them.
But that appreciation can also be overt. When he and Phil Mickelson finished on Thursday, after he got done with the handful of media interviews, he went straight to the autograph barriers and worked his way from one end to the other signing autographs. It must have been fifty feet with fans five or six deep. He was particularly attentive with the kids, seeking their items out among the outstretched arms of the adults, doing selfies on request and even working his way around the bend at the end of the barriers so the kids there wouldn’t be disappointed.
So as he says, “Don’t worry.” He’s playing great and he knows it. The reason he hit the longest drive of the day on 18 on Saturday is that he is filled with belief in what he’s doing. And belief leads to freedom in the swing. You can see it.
Phil Mickelson Addendum
Phil did the exact same thing with the fans on that Friday, engaging in brief conversations as he went. There was a funny moment as he was finishing up. A man extended a crumpled white t-shirt and Phil says, “What’s this?” as he shook it out to see. “Oh, I’m not signing that,” he said as the man laughed uproariously. I couldn’t see what the t-shirt said, but given that it was the Phoenix Open, there had to be something bawdy about it.
But the reason for this addendum is what happened before he started signing autographs. When someone like Phil finishes, there are a handful of the usual media outlets that get two or three exclusive minutes with him — the Golf Channel, PGA Tour.com, etc — before the general media gets a crack at him.
Because the day was so beautiful, instead of having him in the Media Center interview room, they set up a short, elevated wooden platform to get him above the fray, known in the vernacular as the gaggle. There’s a standup mike in the middle, video cameras on tripods seemingly way too close to him and the rest of the print media tightly packed around the platform.
There are all manor of people with media credentials that don’t understand this pecking order — there’s no sign with what you’re supposed to do — so the bold ones try to catch him before he gets on the platform. For the adults, he informs them that he’ll take questions on the platform — he’d be all day if he didn’t — but sometimes there are exceptions.
This day it was a young girl about twelve years old who had snagged others, but this was Phil. She was so cute with her 1st Tee golf hat on and her notebook and pen clutched in her hands. The tours are very good about getting the 1st Tee kids involved in the tournaments. The Champions Tour arranges tours of the media center and the LPGA, closely allied with Girls Golf, actually produces a thirty-minute event in the media center. And typical of the LPGA, players actually show up for the event and interact with the girls.
Anyway, the girl tried to snag Phil about 15 feet away from the platform as he was on his way up. When he realized who she was, he told her over his shoulder that he would speak to her right after the media session. Since a lot of players say things like that before they realize that they’re in a time crunch that wasn’t what was unusual.
What was unusual, was that after he got up on the platform, he stepped back off and went over to her. He said, “Wait right here. I’ll be back as soon as I’m done up there.” It was an unequivocal promise. The shy smile on her face turned radiant. After we got our shot at him, he walked back over to her, asked her her name and asked what she want to know? So here you have this 6’3″ superstar in full Tour regalia looming over this young girl in a fatherly way…and he was great. Beyond great. She got to ask him three questions and he thoughtfully gave her extended answers to all three of them. And stood for a photograph when they were done.
There wasn’t an adult who watched all of this who wasn’t infused with joy for her and admiration for him. That’s Phil.