So, the winner did come from the “Big Three”. But who really would have thought it would be Rickie Fowler after he’d been overshadowed by both Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy in Thursday’s opening round of the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship?
We should know, of course, that these events are marathons, not sprints. While world No 1 Spieth and third-ranked McIlroy could only produce the occasional burst over the remaining 54 holes, the man who paced himself and showed staying power on his second visit to the United Arab Emirates was Fowler.
In winning by a shot from Belgian Thomas Pieters with a 16-under-par 272 total, the 27-year-old Californian claimed his fourth significant success in less than a year as he added to wins in the Players’ Championship, Deutsche Bank Championship and, of course, the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Gullane last July.
This triumph, which lifted Fowler up to a career-best fourth in the world rankings, was a reminder to Spieth and McIlroy that they won’t be getting things their own way in golf’s exciting new era, and world No 2 Jason Day hasn’t really got started yet this season.
“It is awesome to play with the best players in the world and to beat the best players in the world,” said Fowler after securing a cheque for around £310,000. “Fourth is the highest I’ve been in the world rankings and I want to be part of the crew. My ultimate goal this season is to win a major and I will build now for Augusta. We’ve got to take care of a major and then maybe I can join the crew.”
On a day of playing catch up following two fog delays earlier in the week, Fowler started the final round with a two-shot lead and was four clear at one point, before just getting the job done after Pieters’ 25-foot eagle putt at the last slipped past by just half-an-inch.
Two flashes of magic won it for the American, who closed with a 69 after posting a 65 in his delayed third circuit earlier in the day. First, he holed a 20-yard bunker shot to eagle the long eighth, a timely bounce back after he’d taken a double-bogey at the previous hole. “That was huge,” he admitted later. Then, just as McIlroy raised a huge cheer up ahead by rolling in an eagle putt at the last, he chipped in for a birdie at the 17th.
“It’s a bonus to win on the European Tour in a Ryder Cup year,” confessed Fowler, who is certain to be one of the key cogs in the US wheel at Hazeltine in September. “It was tough out there today, but my game got better as the week went on and today I was probably swinging my best.”
It wasn’t to be once again for McIlroy in this event, his third place alongside Henrik Stenson adding to four runner-up finishes in the shadow of the giant falcon-shaped clubhouse at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. The four-time major winner had hit 47 out 54 greens in the first three rounds and produced the occasional flash of brilliance. His putting, however, is something that continues to be average in comparison to the other parts of game.
“It seems like this could be the tournament that I just can’t quite master,” admitted McIlroy. “I just didn’t quite have it today after giving myself a lot of work to do going into the last 18 holes, but it’s not a bad way to start the season.
“It’s not quite the result I wanted, but I can take a lot of positives for it. For instance, hitting the two shots I did into the 18th green to set up eagles (he’d also made one on Saturday as he completed his second round) gives me a lot of confidence that I can come up with something like that when I need to.”
McIlroy now has a week off before defending his Omega Dubai Desert Classic title; Spieth has taken a “puddle jump” to the Far East for this week’s Singapore Open. “I’m very tired,” admitted the Masters and US Open champion after surging up the leaderboard with four birdies in his last seven holes to finish joint-fifth, an incredible effort given that he never got close to firing on all cylinders.
“As a team, we are beat up mentally and physically and I’m excited for rest and excited to get home, but finishing the way I did has given me some momentum going forward from a week that I could have bagged off.”