PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida – Golf’s youngest and biggest stars keep winning.
Rickie Fowler has mostly been watching.
He wasn’t in Hawaii when Justin Thomas swept the Aloha State by a combined 10 shots, including a PGA Tour record for 72 holes and a 59 at the Sony Open. He took off the final two weeks of the West Coast swing when Jordan Spieth blew away all his challengers at Pebble Beach, and Dustin Johnson was overwhelming at Riviera.
“It’s fun seeing it,” Fowler said. “It’s motivating to see my friends go win. And to have them texting me last night and wishing me the best, telling me to go get it done, it’s a fun group to be part of because we’re all trying to push each other to be the best players we can be.
“We love seeing each other play well,” he said. “And we love beating each other when they’re at their best.”
Sunday at the Honda Classic was Fowler’s turn.
He didn’t want to recite the entire list of text messages he received, though he mentioned Spieth and Thomas and Rory McIlroy, who has been out with a rib injury the last six weeks. Even that old man in the neighborhood, 41-year-old Tiger Woods, chimed in with a message to Fowler for him to get it done.
And that’s what he did, though Fowler could have done without a brief spell of suspense.
Fowler now has four PGA Tour victories, which is solid for a 28-year-old in his eighth season on the PGA Tour, though it doesn’t quite stack up with McIlroy, Johnson, Spieth, or even Thomas. The knock on Fowler always has been whether he wins enough to match his marketing machine. He’s heard that before.
What really got under his skin was knowing that in four previous occasions that he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour, he had failed to win. Not only that, he had never broken par in the final round when leading.
His best chance was at PGA National on a Sunday afternoon that turned blustery.
Fowler had a four-shot lead and he never lost it, though there were a few nervous moments. From behind the fourth green, his putt up the slope found the wrong hole — a sprinkler head — and led to bogey. Two holes later, he hooked his tee shot into the water and made double bogey.
He could afford that with a four-shot lead.
But when Gary Woodland started to make a run, Fowler suddenly was only one shot ahead, and it then became a chance to fail.
But only briefly.
He rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 12. He added a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 13. That restored his cushion and his comfort, and when he stuffed a 5-iron from 181 yards into the wind and over the lake at No. 16 to 3 feet and made another birdie, the tournament effectively was over.
“My putter saved me,” Fowler said. “If I don’t make those putts, I’ve got a pretty tight race.”
The finish was not what he wanted — a tee shot into the water on the par-3 17th for a bogey, a wedge into the bunker on the par-5 18th for another bogey, and yet another round over par — 1-over 71 — in a final round when he had the lead.
All that did was cost him a chance to break the 72-hole scoring record at PGA National. Fowler finished at 12-under 268, one shot short of the record, but four shots clear of Woodland and Morgan Hoffmann.
This is one time Fowler did not care about pretty.
He cared about winning.
Asked if it was more meaningful to end 13 months without winning or to show he could close out a victory with the lead, Fowler chose the latter.
“Being out front and getting the job done, especially with giving some back and having to fight back,” he said.
Fowler moved back into the top 10 — he is No. 9 in this week’s ranking — for the first time since September. And he extended a telling trend on the PGA Tour this year. Johnson (32) is the oldest PGA Tour winner in 2017 through eight tournaments. The average age of the winners is 25.5 years.
Thomas, who missed the cut, came out to the 18th green to watch Fowler finish.
Fowler can finally join them. Next he has to beat them. He could not help but mention that while the Honda Classic typically has a strong field, none of the top was there. All except Jason Day (No. 2) will be at the Mexico Championship next week.