- Is Rickie Fowler currently the best player to never win a major? He'd like to grab a Masters title and render that debate moot.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rickie Fowler stood in the right rough on the par-4 11th hole at Augusta Saturday and surveyed his surroundings. He had entered the day at two under, tied for eighth place, and had shaved off another five strokes in the third round. He had moved closer to winning the major some people think he will never win. He had hit a fade just a shade too far to the right and now he was 124 yards from the pin. He could play it safe—chip a seven-iron and try for par—or he could go for broke, flop-slicing a four- or five-iron into the wind.
He grabbed his seven-iron, pitched onto the back edge of the green and sent a putt cleanly into the hole for par.
“Who knows,” he said afterward. “I could have made birdie. But probably not.”
He would later call that hole the most important of the day, a moment when he stayed disciplined and moved on. He might have taken the risk, he said, if he had needed to make something happen. But he did not need to make something happen.
“It’s about time we have a real shot” here, he had said Tuesday. He understands that he is too talented to play the way he has at Augusta National. A year ago he entered Sunday one stroke back of the leaders, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose. They each shot 69 to end up in a playoff. Fowler shot 76 and finished tied for 11th. In 2014 he opened the fourth round two shots behind and closed it with a 73 to finish tied for fifth.
Entering Sunday this year he is again in third place. He is five shots back of Patrick Reed, but if Reed collapses, Fowler is in position to take advantage. He is only two strokes behind Rory McIlroy.
There is fierce debate in golf about the sport’s most famous backhand compliment: Best Player Never to Win a Major. Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie held the title. Phil Mickelson shed it when he won here in 2004, at 33. With Garcia’s Masters win last year, Fowler probably leads the pack of current contenders. He is only 29, but he has a reputation for being in contention—and then suddenly not. He is in danger of going—in some people’s minds—from great player who has never won to great player who cannot.
It’s not just at the Masters. At the 2013 U.S. Open, he shot 74 on Sunday to finish tied for 10th. At the ’14 Open Championship, he lost a playoff to McIlroy. At that year’s U.S. Open, he shot 72 to finish eight strokes behind the winner, Martin Kaymer. At last year’s iteration, it was another 72 on Sunday to finish tied for 11th.
Scoring conditions had been difficult Friday, with winds that blew unpredictably and greens that played firm. The weather Saturday—colder with rain that ranged from drizzle to downpour and never really let up—was worse for spectators but better for Fowler. Normally excellent in the short game, he had been frustrated in the second round when putts that felt true but missed the pin. His putting had felt strong in recent weeks after a cold stretch, so he decided not to change his routine. He practiced in front of the mirror before Saturday’s round, just as he usually does. And just as he usually does, he putted well: only 26 over the 18 holes, good for second place.
He got off to a good start, eagling number 2. He birdied 5, 6 and 8, saved that par on 11 and birdied again on 15 and 17. This is his eighth Masters and his first bogey-free round. Fowler is not a very long golfer. He has averaged 292.3 yards per drive this week. He has hit only 69% of his fairways and 72% of his greens in regulation. His success Sunday will probably depend on whether he can improve on those numbers.
“If we’re able to take care of tee-to-green, fairways, greens,” he said, “give me that putter, and we’ll go have some fun.”
That’s easy to say. Getting himself out of the least fun club in golf will be harder.