News & Opinion

In this contest, Fowler can’t win for losing

“Attention, kids! Everyone who’s graduating from fifth grade, please step to the front of the classroom. Not so fast, Grabarkewicz!” This is what it must feel like to be Rickie Fowler these days. Everyone who’s anyone has won major championships this decade.

“Attention, kids! Everyone who’s graduating from fifth grade, please step to the front of the classroom. Not so fast, Grabarkewicz!”

This is what it must feel like to be Rickie Fowler these days. Everyone who’s anyone has won major championships this decade. Shane Lowry. Gary Woodland. Danny Willett. Webb Simpson. Jimmy Walker. Even the formerly luckless Sergio Garcia.

Rickie Fowler
Orange crushed: Rickie Fowler closes another season without a major championship.

Everyone, that is, except Fowler. It’s as if all of the surviving players sneaked out of the “Big Brother” house in the middle of the night, leaving one musclebound knucklehead to wake up the next morning and dumbfoundedly wonder, Wha’ happen?

You have been left behind on the island, Mr. Rick. You don’t even have your own Wilson, as did Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away.” They’re all gone, brother, and now it’s just you, by your lonesome.

For now, Fowler can laugh all the way to the bank. You can’t watch a golf telecast anymore without seeing him in 23 commercials for insurance or mortgage loans or, probably, Space X next. He is the Peyton Manning of golf. Fowler does more commercials than Tiger Woods, just as Manning does more commercials than Tom Brady (but maybe not Aaron Rodgers).

The label of Best Player Who Hasn’t Won a Major Yet goes to Fowler, almost by default. Lee Westwood made a nice run last week in the British Open at Royal Portrush, but at 46, did you really think he was going to finally get it done? He would have been a hell of a story.

But Westwood belongs on some kind of historical list of all-time best players who are major-less. He’s no longer a factor in the world rankings, and he’s no longer a player whom we expect to win a major.

The Best Player Who Hasn’t Won a Major Yet list is a way to rank the major-less players who are playing the best at the moment, while considering that some of the newer tour players haven’t been exempt long enough to have a fair shot at snagging a major.

There’s a reason why the BPWHWAMY list is obsolete. Twelve of the past 17 major champions were first-time major winners. That’s one way to decimate a list.

Patrick Reed won a Masters while we still were trying to decide just how good he was. We know he’s a match-play demon, but in stroke play, well, he’s oh-for-everything since the 2018 Masters.

Walker hasn’t won since the 2016 PGA Championship. He has endured a battle with Lyme disease in the meantime.

You’ve got to put yourself in position to have a chance to win a major, and if you do, a major may fall into your lap. Willett benefitted from Jordan Spieth’s disastrous 12th hole at the 2016 Masters; Keegan Bradley snapped up the 2011 PGA in Atlanta after Jason Dufner stumbled; Simpson grabbed the 2012 U.S. Open following a few mistakes by Jim Furyk.

Fowler had an epic season in 2014, He finished top five in all four majors, a feat accomplished only by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at the time. Spieth did it in 2015, and Koepka just finished it off at Royal Portrush. The difference between Fowler and the others is 40 major championships.

The spotlight on Fowler is going to be an unfair one. In the past, majorless misery usually has had company, whether it was Colin Montgomerie or Westwood or Phil Mickelson (he didn’t win his first major until he was two months shy of 34) or Tom Kite.

Fowler is out on this ledge by himself. If I were doing a majorless best-player list, who’d be No. 2 on the list behind him?

Jon Rahm? He’s 24, and this was only his third year of playing all four majors, so it’s too soon to measure him by something he hasn’t done yet. Bryson DeChambeau? He’s 25, has played only two Masters as a pro, and this was only his second year of playing in all four majors. The latter also is true of Patrick Cantlay, 27. Xander Schauffele? He’s 25, tied for runner-up at the Masters this year and has played in only 11 majors in his young career. Tommy Fleetwood? At 28, he’s got a pair of runner-up finishes in only 18 major-championship appearances. Tony Finau? He's 29, has five top-10 major finishes in the past two years and has played in only 15 majors.

I’d set the bar at 20 majors as a pro before anyone would be eligible for the undesirable Best Major Player tag.

Looking down the world rankings, the most likely nominee would be 41-year-old Matt Kuchar. He has won nine times on the PGA Tour. Is he a player who should win a major or just a player who could win one? Debate among yourselves. In 51 major starts, he has come really close only once: two years ago at Royal Birkdale when he took the lead following Spieth’s final-round escapade on the 13th hole via the practice range. He didn’t lose that British Open; Spieth rallied to beat him with a ridiculous barrage of birdies and an eagle. Kuchar has had a dozen top-10 major finishes. He can win a major, but if he’s No. 2 on this list, it’s not a deep list. His resume doesn’t indicate he’s on a path toward the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before or after you win a major; it matters only that you did it once.

Fowler owns five PGA Tour victories, including a couple of pretty good ones: the 2015 Players and a stellar week at the Wells Fargo in 2012. I liked his gutsy comeback from a back-nine triple bogey on Sunday to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open earlier this year.

He is now 30, no longer the young buckaroo who was going to take the PGA Tour by storm after he started working with coach Butch Harmon, who once tried to motivate him by asking if he wanted to “be a Kardashian or a golf pro?”

In this age of instant gratification, five wins at 30 seems like underachieving. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. Not so long ago, that used to be the arc of a pretty decent career, but wunderkinds such as Spieth and Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas have blown that perception to shreds by winning early and often.

Fowler has had eight top-fives among his 12 top-10 finishes in his 40 major appearances, has been runner-up in three of the four majors and finished as low as third in the fourth, the PGA. That’s a player who repeatedly has played well enough to make history and given himself chances.

Anyone who thinks Fowler isn’t going to get his major eventually, please take one step forward.

Not so fast, Grabarkewicz…