Rickie Fowler the latest to set down a marker with Honda win
The American maintained his four shot final day lead to move back into world’s top 10
Rickie Fowler of the United States plays his shot from the 17th tee during the final round of The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
On his front nine Sunday at the Honda Classic, Rickie Fowler called to mind a sailor trying to hold a steady course in a stiff headwind. The final round is not always a Sunday cruise for the leader — in the first 14 tournaments of this wraparound season, the player with at least a share of the third-round lead held on to win just six times. But Fowler’s course was complicated by uncharted waters: He had never won on the PGA Tour after entering the final round ahead.
Leading by four strokes as the day began, Fowler recorded two bogeys and a double bogey on his way to a two-over-par 37 on the front nine at PGA National’s Champion Course. It was a worryingly wobbly start for Fowler, who had only five bogeys in his previous seven competitive rounds and had not had a double bogey in any of his previous 2017 tour events.
Fowler’s lead dwindled to a single stroke before his putter steered him to safety. He drained putts of 38 and 23 feet on successive holes on the back nine and gave himself the cushion he needed to hold off Gary Woodland and Morgan Hoffmann.
“The putter saved me,” said Fowler, who closed with a one-over 71 to finish at 12-under 268, four strokes better than Woodland, who bogeyed the final two holes for a 69, and Hoffmann, who parred the final six for a 68.
At the turn, Fowler’s longtime caddie, Joe Skovron, reminded Fowler that with his near-flawless play during the first three days, he had given himself the wiggle room for an imperfect finish.
“Hey, you just played your worst nine holes all week,” Skovron said he told Fowler, “and you’re still in control of the tournament.”
Fowler dresses in colorful attire, including Creamsicle orange on Sunday, but his emotions rarely stand out. Skovron said that one of his top responsibilities is to get Fowler into the most positive frame of mind possible, and so before Fowler teed off at the 10th, Skovron asked him, “Are you good?” Fowler’s one-word reply — “Yep” — put Skovron at ease.
With his strong finish on the back nine, Fowler ended one dubious streak while extending another — he still has not broken par in the final round while holding the 54-hole lead.
“Turning at two over, I really felt even par was probably going to be O.K. from there in,” Fowler said, adding, “I just had to hold on.”
Fowler had won twice overseas while holding the 54-hole lead, in South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, both times against more illustrious fields than this one, which included none of the players in the world’s top six. Fowler turned a Sunday stroll into high drama on the par-4 sixth when his drive found the water hazard. After taking a one-stroke penalty, he hit the fairway with his next shot but was 77 yards from the pin. His approach landed 25 feet from the hole, and from there, he two-putted to drop to 11 under.
Around then, Woodland parred the seventh to stay at nine under, two under for the day. Woodland then birdied the 13th to move to 10 under. But then Fowler sank his 38-footer at 12 to give himself some breathing room at 12 under.
“I was well aware that it was getting close,” Fowler said. “I just kept sticking to the process and trying to piece things together, to get the ball in the fairway, get it on the green and just kind of get that simple, stress-free golf back.”
Woodland, who was trying to win his first tour event since 2013 and his third over all, said he has been pleased with his play lately. “Keep knocking on the door, and we’ll bust through soon,” he said.
Woodland’s hopes for victory were undone by the confounding crosswinds on the closing holes. He hit his second shot on the par-5 18th into the water after three-putting the par-3 17th.
Fowler, 28, became the eighth winner in his 20s in nine events this calendar year. Fowler’s companion in the final pair, Tyrrell Hatton, narrowly missed a 30-foot birdie putt that would have tied him with Hoffmann and Woodland in second. Hatton (72) tied for fourth with Jhonattan Vegas, who recorded an ace in his round of 64, along with Billy Horschel (68), Chad Collins (69), Wesley Bryan (70) and Martin Kaymer (70).
Vegas’ hole-in-one came at the par three 15th – the first hole of the infamous Bear Trap – and also saw him come away with a car.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 27, 2017
Graham McDowell managed to bag himself a top 15 finish with a final round of 69 to finish on four under.
That gave him his highest finish of the season and also left him collecting a cheque for a cool $102,400.
Other than his putts, Fowler’s best shot of the day was his approach on the par-4 16th, which landed three feet from the pin, making his fifth and final birdie putt his shortest of the day.
“Kind of a little bonus was making a great swing on 16 in there and having almost a tap-in birdie, just give myself enough cushion going into the last two holes,” he said.
Fowler’s fourth tour victory was not his most memorable — that remains the 2015 Players Championship, when he played the final four holes of regulation in five under to force a playoff. But he took it happily.
“I would have liked to have a little bit cleaner card today and played a little bit better,” Fowler said, adding, “but this is a good one.”
(New York Times service)