ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Rickie Fowler puffed his cheeks and shook his head. What looked like being a procession to the Abu Dhabi Championship title ended up being a squeeze for the American on Sunday.
It needed two moments of inspiration in the final round to seal a one-shot victory — and spark more talk about Fowler’s place in golf’s current elite.
Dressed in his trademark Sunday orange, Fowler rebounded from a double-bogey at No. 7, which helped trim his lead over a congested pack of challengers from four strokes to one, by chipping in from 30 yards for eagle from a bunker at No. 8.
Then, at No. 17, Fowler holed a chip from just off the green for a birdie that shook off playing partner Thomas Pieters, the Belgian who emerged from the bunch to chase Fowler all the way down the stretch.
“It was not how it was planned,” a smiling Fowler said of the tight finish, “but came out on top.”
Fowler, who held a two-stroke lead after a third-round 65, shot a 3-under 69 for 16-under 272 overall. Pieters (67) was runner-up, with fast-finishing Rory McIlroy (68) and Henrik Stenson (67) tied for third.
There was satisfaction for Fowler with claiming his fourth win worldwide in nine months, after victories at The Players Championship, the Scottish Open, and the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2015. This win will move him from No. 6 to No. 4 in the rankings, for a first-ever spot in the world’s top five.
The so-called “Big Three” of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy may need to be enlarged.
“I want to be part of the crew. It would be a pretty good foursome,” Fowler said. “I think I mentioned through the summer at some point, I said I was a sneaky fourth. We’ve got to take care of a major and then maybe I can join the crew.”
The win was extra special for Fowler, considering Spieth (No. 1), McIlroy (No. 3) and Stenson (No. 5) were in the field — arguably the strongest the European Tour will have this year.
Spieth tied for fifth — five shots behind Fowler — after a 68 and acknowledged after his final round that he was “beat up, mentally and physically,” having played in South Korea, China, Australia, Bahamas, Hawaii and now Abu Dhabi since October.
“I’m very tired. I am,” Spieth said. “I’m not 100 percent right.”
The championship went down to the wire. Fowler took a two-shot lead over Pieters down the par-5 18th and found a greenside bunker with his approach. Pieters gave himself a putt for eagle, which he missed left by an inch.
Fowler had two putts to win and he needed them both, with his winning effort from 2 feet.
“I didn’t do much wrong today,” said the big-hitting Pieters, who moved to within one shot of Fowler with a birdie on No. 13 but only parred his way to the 18th. “Next time maybe some more putts drop, that’s it.”
This is the first time Fowler has won during the first four months of a year. He has made a fashion statement this week by wearing high-top golf shoes and ankle-tight jogger pants, but he’s sent out a golfing message, too.
“Nice to have the game where it’s at right now going into the season, instead of trying to work on things,” he said. “I’d say this is really the first time in my career I’ve had that.”
Fowler is now slated to travel to California to play in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines this coming week, notable given the distance and time changes he’ll have to go through to get there.
It was another near miss for McIlroy, who adds a third place to his four runner-up finishes in Abu Dhabi at what is always his first event of each year.
McIlroy started the final round three shots behind Fowler and only came on strong late on, chipping in for birdie on No. 16 and rolling in a 35-foot eagle putt on No. 18.
“Seems like this could be the tournament that I just can’t quite master,” said McIlroy, who was making his 2016 debut after two months off. “But still a good finish and a lot of good golf there.”