CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rickie Fowler kept telling anyone who would listen that his first PGA Tour win was coming soon.
Considering the location, it made perfect sense.
Quail Hollow is where Anthony Kim, fearless at age 22, won by five shots in 2008 for his first tour victory in 2008. It’s where Rory McIlroy, a 20-year-old from Northern Ireland projected for greatness, set the course record with a 62 in the final round two years ago to capture his first U.S. win.
Perhaps another star was born at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Fowler, a 23-year-old from California, lived up his hype in a big way Sunday. Since turning pro 2 1/2 years ago, Fowler has scored little more than style points with his mop-top hair, the flat-billed cap he wears backward in interviews, his head-to-toe orange that has become his trademark in the final round and impeccable manners that has made him a favorite among fans and his peers.
He added plenty of substance in a playoff packed with pressure and a budding rival in McIlroy.
From 133 yards to a pin so scary that the 18th hole had yielded only four birdies all day, Fowler took dead aim with a 51-degree wedge. Anything less than perfect, and his ball could have come up short and rolled toward the tiny stream left of the green. But this was no time to play it safe.
“If I don’t have a little bit of help or don’t hit it perfectly, then I land short and I’m in the creek,” Fowler said. “But playing against those two guys, I know that they’re going to make birdie at some point. And I don’t want to sit there and try and make pars and stay in it. I had a good number, and I wanted to make birdie.”
That he did, watching his wedge land just short of the flag and spin to the left about 4 feet away.
D.A. Points, whose first bogey in 41 holes made the three-man playoff possible, went long and did well to two-putt from par, the second putt from 12 feet. McIlroy, who drilled a 3-wood nearly 340 yards and was last to hit, didn’t turn his wedge enough with the wind and was left with a difficult birdie putt from about 25 feet. He ran it 5 feet by the hole and made that for par.
Fowler, who switched to a cross-handed grip last week at New Orleans, calmly sank the birdie putt for the win.
“Told you it was coming,” he said as he settled into his seat for his press conference.
He was smiling. Fowler does that a lot, even during the 32 months and 66 starts on the PGA Tour as a pro without a win.
This wasn’t easy, and Fowler never expected it to be that way. He closed with a 3-under 69, but had reason to believe this would be just another close call. With the outright lead after a birdie on the 15th, he went bunker-to-bunker on the next hole — the second shot in a plugged lie — and missed a 10-foot putt to take bogey.
And then, as he had done so often in his career, he had to wait.
In the group behind, McIlroy also stumbled. He went long of the green on the 17th and missed a difficult 8-foot par putt to fall one shot behind. Points, the 35-year-old playing with McIlroy, took a one-shot lead to the 18th. He was the only player who had not made a bogey. Timing in this game is everything.
Points went into a greenside bunker, and his 75-foot shot was below the hole and nearly off the green. He never came close to par, closing with a 71. That set the stage for McIlroy, who had a 15-foot birdie putt for the win. He missed and shot 70.
The playoff lasted one hole. Fowler made sure of that. The kid has never been afraid to put it all on the line.
There was the thrill-seeking passion for motocross as a teenager, the panache for head-turning clothing he brought to the PGA Tour as a rookie. With his best chance to break through for his first American win, Fowler showed his true colors.
“I didn’t want to play it safe,” Fowler said. “I had a good number (133 yards), and I was aiming right of the hole with the wind coming out of the right, and if I hit a perfect shot, it comes down right on the stick. … I hit a perfect shot at the right time, and I was going for it.”
For a guy under increasing pressure to win, Fowler kept his cool even after he won. He clenched his fist and smiled. The only time he came close to getting emotional is when thinking about his coach, Barry McConnell, who died last year. It was McConnell who helped Fowler fashion a homemade swing on a practice range in Temecula, Calif., when Fowler was not on a motorcycle.
“It’s a good feeling right now,” Fowler said. “Definitely some relief, satisfaction. I’m definitely happy. It’s not a bad thing, winning. It’s kind of fun.”
The three players finished at 14-under 274. Fowler’s main goal this year was to win, and that gives him a big step toward two other goals — getting to the Tour Championship for the first time in the FedEx Cup playoffs, and perhaps being part of another Ryder Cup team.
He was the first PGA Tour rookie to ever be picked for the Ryder Cup in Wales two years ago, and while it wasn’t his best week, he showed his promise in singles when he won the last four holes against Edoardo Molinari to earn a half-point, which nearly was enough to give the Americans a win.
Even so, he didn’t win. Fowler got his first win as a pro last fall at the Korean Open. It wasn’t a strong field, but he beat McIlroy.
Both are 23. Both play with energy and exuberance. There is a generational shift in golf, and they are a big part of it. Perhaps it is too soon for a rivalry. Fowler, after all, only has one PGA Tour title. McIlroy is a U.S. Open champion who returned to No. 1 in the world with the playoff loss.
This might be the first chapter.
“I think it was just a matter of time before he won,” McIlroy said. “It seems like this tournament produces first-time winners — Anthony Kim, myself, now Rickie. It’s great to see. He probably has went through a little bit of scrutiny and a lot of pressure trying to get that first win. But now that win is out of the way. Hopefully, that will ease the pressure a little bit.”
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