Ahead of The Players Championship, Rory McIlroy was asked if the media’s drumming up for a rivalry with Masters champion Jordan Spieth did much for him.
Candidly, per usual, McIlroy put the kibosh on such talk.
“Last year it was Rickie (Fowler), this year it’s Jordan, might be someone else, could have been Tiger,” said the world No. 1. “It’s sort of, you know, there’s been four or five rivalries over the past year.”
The four-time major winner is right. Rivalries — at least the ones that are worth remembering — aren’t fabricated behind keyboards. They’re established, played out and decided in competition. The golf community, at least in the United States, was quick to anoint the 21-year-old prodigy golf’s new king after his record-setting performance at Augusta National. That clearly miffed McIlroy, who then went out and won the WGC-Match Play. He then showed up Spieth over the first two days at TPC Sawgrass, beating the Texan by seven shots over 36 holes.
However, while Spieth didn’t have his best stuff at the PGA Tour’s crown jewel, another young gun did, establishing himself as more than a flashy dresser with a friendly face.
Rickie Fowler played the golf of his life late on Sunday, scorching Sawgrass to the tune of 6 under par in the final six holes, including a birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie finish to set a tournament scoring record by playing the last four holes in a meager 11 strokes. The flourish was enough to land in a playoff with 2008 Players champion Sergio Garcia and underrated Kevin Kisner in the tournament’s first-ever three-hole, aggregate-score playoff.
After Fowler tied Kisner and eliminated Garcia playing the first three holes in 1 under par, the 26-year-old made another birdie — his third in a row on the day — on the island-green, par-3 17th to secure his biggest career victory.
The win came just days after a golf.com anonymous poll of PGA Tour players revealed Fowler and Ian Poulter were tied for the distinction of most overrated PGA Tour player. Anyone who had been paying attention knew that was rubbish. Last year, Fowler became just the third player in golf history to finish in the top five in all four major championships in a single season, following Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in accomplishing the feat. Unfortunately for Fowler, he also became the first player to pull that off without actually winning a major, perhaps, in a strange way, only adding to the belief that the Fowler hype machine was out of control.
This Players triumph should put things into perspective. Fowler now trails Spieth in career wins by one — the difference being a major — and proved to McIlroy that a boring game plan isn’t required to win at Pete Dye’s masterpiece. Of course, Fowler isn’t on their level, and he’d admit that. However, a moment like this can catapult a player to bigger and better things. It’s hard to do much better than four major top fives in a year, so the logical next step is a major win.
Let’s suppose Fowler could win a major this year. Even if Spieth wins another and McIlroy adds to his four, then it’s time to have a real conversation about a possible long-term rivalry involving all the guys we actually thought would be the next generation of the sport.
The future could be here, just at the right time as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson exit the main stage.