What a Players Championship!

The 2015 Players Championship had a finish that only a Hollywood screen writer could have made up.  It will go down as the most exciting, gutsy, pressure packed, brilliantly played finish since the tournament originated in 1974.  The only thing that was missing to make it one of the all-time best was if it had been in a major championship.

The Players Championship is played on a very demanding golf course that requires exacting control over a variety of golf shots and gut-wrenching decisions and shot execution over the last three holes.  A small slip-up many times results in a double bogie and a lost championship.  So the winner of this event, at least in recent years, usually is a world class player.  What we witnessed from Ricky Fowler was a phenomenal hot streak over the last six holes in regulation and continued positive aggressive play in the playoff.  Ricky Fowler didn’t back down and continued to play his “hot hand” and earned every bit of this championship title.

For the first three hours of the telecast, Ricky Fowler wasn’t shown hitting a shot.  It wasn’t until he birdied the 13th hole, to go 7 under, that he made the second page of the leaderboard.  At that time he was four strokes back of Sergio Garcia.  A birdie at 15 and now he was in position for a nice top five finish and a good paycheck.  Realistically winning was not in his mind, but playing aggressively and making more birdies was totally locked into his thinking.    The second shot on 16 from over 240 yards to a tucked pin by the water was a foolhardy play, but if you were to win you had to make that play.  I have played TPC Sawgrass and the second shot to 16 with the pin on the right is much tougher than any shot to 17.  It looks like the pin is sitting in the lake.  Ricky had to land his fairway wood in a ten foot area for it to have a chance to get close to the hole.  He pulled off a statistically low percentage shot, but a shot that great players seem to be able to hit in those clutch situations. That eagle now made him ten under and tied for the lead after Sergio bogied the 14th hole.  As he made that putt and walked over to the tee at 17, he had a different look.  He was totally in the “zone” and fully committed to finishing what he started and winning.  Brilliant wedge to a tough pin and short putt for birdie on 17 and now he was in the lead by himself.  Playing safe on 18 wasn’t even considered.  His tee shot was killed and perfect and left him only a short wedge left on the 462 yard finishing hole.  His 17 foot putt went dead-center and his 12 under total was two clear of his rivals at that time.

But the tournament wasn’t over for brilliant and courageous play.  Sergio rebounded with hitting the green in two on 16 and two putting for birdie and then making an improbable long birdie putt on 17 before missing a 20 footer on 18 for the win.  However, most impressively, Kevin Kisner stamped himself as a player to be reckoned with in the future.  Birdies at 16 and 17 put him tied with Sergio and Ricky going into the final hole.  After a wonderful drive and iron to 11 feet, he hit a pure putt that somehow didn’t go in.  Kevin showed no back-off on this grand stage and displayed he wasn’t afraid to hit quality shots in pressure situations.

In the three hole playoff, Sergio made three pars, but never seemed to be a factor and he was gone.  The players making the shots were Fowler and Kisner.  Each had resolve and played aggressively with both birdieing the 17th and both having putts for birdies on 18.  After the three hole playoff, they went back to 17 and again both hit aggressive well struck wedges with Ricky finishing off the victory by making the six foot birdie putt for the third time in a row that he birdied the 17th hole.

In a Sports Illustrated article published the week before the championship, anonymous PGA Tour pros were polled as to the most over-rated professionals in their ranks.  Ian Poulter and Ricky Fowler placed first with each receiving 24 percent of the votes.  I agree with the Poulter ranking, but I felt Ricky proved himself with his three second place finishes in the last three majors last year.  It is true that he had only won once on the PGA Tour before the Players and once overseas.  To deserve the notoriety, publicity and sponsor endorsements that he has gotten, the record should be better. This championship, even though a step below a major, is still a giant accomplishment.  Better still was the way he won the title.  Gutsy “Arnold Palmer”ish come from behind and go for broke style that invigorated the gallery and TV viewers.  We will remember this performance for a long time.  

This certainly takes away the “over-rated” tag in my mind and firmly cements his marquee status as one of the most entertaining and best players on the PGA Tour.  But super-star status is reserved for major championship winners and consistent high level performers.  He isn’t that player yet, but with a performance like that, he certainly is capable of it.


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