Rickie Fowler latest to keep golf from rough

Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. — Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green in his red shirt before players in the final few groups even sat down for lunch.

This constitutes progress for Woods.

And for golf.

Never mind that only four other players had a worse score than Woods in The Players Championship. It was the first time in 18 months Woods completed 72 holes in consecutive starts, and only the sixth time during that period that he was even seen in his red shirt.

So how is this progress for the sport?

Because there was a time that when Woods left the golf course, the majority of fans left with him.

That might not ever happen at the TPC Sawgrass, not with the spectacle that is the island green on the 17th hole, or with Rory McIlroy in range to start the final round. And it's a big championship, as big as it can get without being a major.

But golf has options now, and a lot them.

Rickie Fowler winning — and the way he won — was the latest example why the PGA Tour is so healthy even when it's biggest star is ailing.

Consider the last two months that featured two World Golf Championships, one major and one tournament that feels like one. The winners were Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, McIlroy and Fowler. In the last seven PGA Tour events, the worst-ranked winner was J.B. Holmes, who was at No. 20 when he won the Shell Houston Open in a three-man playoff.

The timing of Fowler's victory was impeccable.

It was too easy to connect the dots to the magazine survey of anonymous players who voted Fowler and Ian Poulter as the most overrated players on the PGA Tour. Each received 24 percent of the vote, which led them to refer to each other as "24." Fowler did his best to disguise the hurt. This is a 26-year-old who doesn't speak negatively about anybody.

He said it would motivate him, though Fowler derived far more pleasure from the crystal trophy and all the perks that go with it — a three-year exemption to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a $1.8 million check.

But this win was far more significant as it relates to all of golf, not just Fowler.

McIlroy has established himself as a clear No. 1 with two majors and two World Golf Championships in the last 10 months. Spieth was mentioned as the top challenger with his wire-to-wire Masters victory, which completed a stretch of four tourneys where he won twice and was runner-up twice.

Fowler's name was mentioned without trophies because of his appeal — particularly to young fans — and his work ethic, which often got lost in all the hype over his astute activation of social media.

He had a pair of runner-up finishes in the majors last year, and joined Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to finish in the top five at all four majors. The difference was they won, and that's why it was so important for Fowler to win a big one for his game — not just his name — to be part of the conversation.