SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Waste Management Phoenix Open prides itself on being a zero-landfill event, with cardboard receptacles marked “Recycle” and “Compost” all over the TPC Scottsdale course.
Now, it seemed, Rickie Fowler was throwing away the tournament.
Or was it being taken from him, ripped out of hands by the golf gods? Heads shook. Jaws dropped. Minds reeled. And it fell to the PGA TOUR Vice President of Rules and Competition Slugger White to explain that Fowler, who was cruising toward certain victory, had just made a bizarre triple-bogey 7 at the par-4 11th hole, changing everything.
“I hope I never have to go through that again,” Fowler said when it was over, and he had secured his fifth TOUR win and the first witnessed by his father, Rod, and maternal grandpa, Taka.
On a course where he has sometimes seemed cursed, Fowler survived a shocking calamity the likes of which no one could remember, making clutch birdies on 15 and 17 to gut out a final-round 74 and beat Branden Grace (69) by two.
Justin Thomas, Fowler’s friend and roommate for the week, shot 72 to finish third.
In breaking a nearly two-year win drought, Fowler moved to 7th in the FedExCup; qualified for the Sentry Tournament of Champions; and bucked a trend that had seen him convert only one of his last six 54-hole leads/co-leads to victory on TOUR.
When people remember this WMPO, though, they’ll remember the craziness at the 11th hole.
“Pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Fowler said.
Well, almost everything. His caddie, Joe Skovron, could have fallen in the water, too.
The saga began when Fowler’s approach to the 483-yard hole came up short. He got too aggressive with his third, which skidded through the rain-soaked green, trickled down the hill behind it, and tumbled in the pond.
“The ball looked like it was on ice,” he said.
The shot was overdone, but slightly unlucky. Had the ball veered just a touch to the right, it would have caught the sand, from where he might’ve gotten up and down for bogey.
Fowler took a drop at water’s edge and walked up the hill to look at the green. Then, as he says on one of his TV commercials, things got weird. With the rain intensifying and Fowler having turned his back, the ball that was at rest rolled down the hill and into the water.
After some discussion with White, it was determined that Fowler would be penalized one more shot for the ball going in the water. He hadn’t hit it there, but it had been in play.
“That’s an interesting one,” Fowler said of the Rules of Golf, which the governing bodies have tried to simplify and make more user-friendly. “We did nothing to cause it to happen, and it’s a one-shot penalty.”
He dropped again, chipped his sixth shot onto the green, and rolled in a 17-foot putt for 7, or what he later called “a really good triple.”
Grace birdied the 13th hole, Fowler bogeyed 12, and just like that he’d gone from five ahead to one behind in less than an hour.
It was all slipping away again.
With his mom and dad, Lynn and Rod, and maternal grandparents, Jeanie and Taka, watching again, this was going to be the day Rickie exorcised the demons of his crushing runner-up to Hideki Matsuyama in 2016. That day Fowler knocked his drive over the par-4 17th and into the water in regulation, and hooked a 3-wood into the water on the same hole in the playoff.
He’d choked back tears afterward, so badly had he wanted to win in front of his dad and grandpa.
He’d finished runner-up to Hunter Mahan in 2010, too. Last year Fowler had had a chance to win yet again but bogeyed three of the last four holes and finished T11.
All those close calls? All that craziness this time around? “To have it end the way it did today was unbelievable,” said Fowler’s father, Rod. “I think that made it even more special.”
This time, Fowler played to win instead of not to lose. He reached the green in two at the par-5 15th, his second shot from 239 yards clearing the hazard and leaving him with an easy two-putt birdie from 50 feet. He was tied with Grace, who was beginning to falter ahead of him.
Fowler saved par from just right of the 16th green. He drove the green on 17, the hole that had tormented him for years. Again, he needed only two putts for another birdie.
He was back to 17 under, two ahead of Grace, who’d bogeyed 17.
“To hit the shots that he did on those holes, after everything that had happened, was amazing,” said friend Aaron Baddeley, who lives five minutes from the course and had driven over with his wife and four of his five kids to see Fowler win. (Baddeley had done the same thing last year and in 2016, only to wind up giving condolences instead of congratulations.)
Friend Thomas said he believed Fowler’s win, under such harsh conditions and with bad breaks, will do more to steel him for future battles than had he coasted to victory.
“It was insane,” Thomas said of the events at the 11th hole.
The winner didn’t dispute that, or the fact that everything had turned out in the end. He flipped the winning ball to grandpa Taka, who caught it and beamed as grandma Jeanie captured the moment on her iPhone.
“Cheers,” Fowler said, raising a glass of Champagne as he met the media afterward. “I finally got it done.”