PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It was the greatest show on Pete Dye’s turf.
Rickie Fowler shot 5-under-par on the last four holes of Dye’s devilish design – including eagle-birdie-birdie on the final three – that earned him a spot in a playoff with Sergio Garcia and Aiken native Kevin Kisner.
Fowler then drilled a 5-foot putt to birdie the par-3 17th hole for the fifth time in six tries to turn back Kisner on the fourth playoff hole and win The Players Championship on the most extraordinary Sunday in the 42-year history of the PGA Tour’s richest event.
Fowler earned $1.8 million for his second PGA Tour title. He might also have put to rest the “overrated” tag slapped on him in a recent anonymous Sports Illustrated poll of fellow PGA Tour players.
“I did everything I could to fight and hang around,” Fowler said. “I knew I had to do something. I thought there was a chance I could win outright, but those guys coming in, they’re the best players in the world. That’s why I was out on the range ready to go for a playoff. It was almost like nothing to lose. I was out of the golf tournament through 12 holes and managed to fight my way back in.”
And that overrated stuff?
Overrated players don’t usually defeat the deepest field at the most stressful course on Tour. They also don’t become the first Tour winner in history to shoot 5-under on his last four holes (since records were first kept in 1983) and for certain, they don’t birdie the dangerous and famous 17th hole three times in one afternoon.
“Obviously, he’s not overrated,” said Kisner, who has lost two events in playoffs in his past three starts. “What is he supposed to be rated? I’m sure he was fired up to get that off his shoulder and I think he proved it today.”
“(Fowler’s finish) shows a lot of character from him,” said Garcia, who won the 2008 Players in a playoff.
Kisner, who tied Fowler in the three-hole aggregate playoff at 1-under while Garcia was eliminated after three pars, missed a birdie attempt at 12 feet, 6 inches on the Island Green before Fowler made the winning putt.
It was the third putt in Kisner’s last five holes in which he burned the edge of the cup, including a 9-foot birdie attempt on the final hole of regulation that could have won the tournament outright. He also had a 26-footer on the final hole of the aggregate playoff that would have beaten Fowler by one had he made it.
Kisner called Fowler’s tee shot on the second trip to the 17th in extra holes, “sick … pretty dadgum good.”
All three players parred No. 16 on the first playoff hole and Fowler and Kisner birdied the 17th on the first go-around to take a one-shot lead over Garcia.
Fowler got up-and-down in front of the 18th green to take it to a fourth hole. Garcia then bowed out after missing a 19-footer for birdie.
And on a sun-splashed Mother’s Day that had faded into a warm and still late spring evening, Fowler got a bonus after his winning putt: his mother Lynn, girlfriend Alexis Randock and his sister Taylor were there to greet him at the base of the footpath leading to the green. They had left and were at Jacksonville International Airport when they learned he was on his roll.
They canceled their flight, kept the rental car and sped back to in time to see the final playoff hole.
Fowler upstaged Craig Perks’ miracle finish in 2002 on the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course. Perks chipped in for eagle at No. 16, made a birdie putt at No. 17 and chipped in for par at No. 18 to win by two shots.
Chris Kirk (75) the 54-hole leader at 10-under, made two bogeys on each side and fell into a tie for 13th. Ben Martin (70) birdied Nos. 16 and 17 but missed the playoff by one shot when his drive at No. 18 found the trees on the right and he eventually made bogey.
Bill Haas (70) also made a late run with three birdies in a row at Nos. 14, 15 and 16, but couldn’t find the one birdie he needed on the last two holes to join the playoff. Kevin Na (71) and Rory Sabbatini (69) tied for sixth at 9-under and world No. 1 player Rory McIlroy (70) was among the players tied at 8-under.
The leaderboard remained crowded deep into the afternoon and Kirk, Kisner, Haas and Martin were locked in a four-way tie for first at one point. When the final twosome made the turn, there were 10 players within three shots of the lead.
Garcia made his move with four birdies in five holes on the front, but his putter deserted him (he had already snapped it in two and left it in a trash can in the first round) and Fowler began his surge.
Just before Garcia missed a 13-foot birdie attempt at No. 15, Fowler drained his birdie at the last to complete his remarkable comeback, with the roar from the 18th green easily reaching the 15th green. It gave Fowler a two-shot lead but Garcia then stepped on the gas. He two-putted for birdie at No. 16 and as if the crowd surrounding the 17th hole hadn’t already been treated to enough drama, he provided more with a birdie putt of 43 feet to tie Fowler.
Garcia missed a 20-footer at No. 18 for the victory and Kisner then joined the playoff after birdies at No. 16 and 17.