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When Is Rickie Fowler Going to Win a Major?



Sunday at the PGA Championship once again ended in disappointment for many Oklahoma State fans as Rickie Fowler shot a 67 to finish T5 at the year’s final major. The T5 was Fowler’s seventh (!) top-five finish at a major since 2011. Here’s how that stacks up to other players in that same timespan.

  • Jason Day: 8
  • Rory McIlroy: 7
  • Jordan Spieth: 7
  • Rickie Fowler: 7
  • Phil Mickelson: 7
  • Dustin Johnson: 5
  • Sergio Garcia: 4
  • Tiger Woods: 4

As you can see, Fowler is right there with his peers in terms of top-flight finishes at major championships. Now there’s a difference of course between finishing top five without having a chance to win and finishing top five after you were really in the mix on a Sunday. Spieth has really been in the mix in all seven of his top five finishes, and he’s won three of them. McIlroy has been in the mix in four and won all four.

Fowler has really been in the mix in four-ish of those seven top five finishes, but he only had one where he led late on Sunday (the 2014 PGA Championship which McIlroy went on to win).

Winning majors (or any tournament) in golf is a complex thing. Unlike other sports, you can’t control what your competitors do. You can play the greatest four rounds of your life and get thwarted at the end by somebody who played the greatest four rounds of all time (this is more or less what happened to Phil Mickelson at the 2016 Open). This doesn’t mean you’re not good enough to be a major winner. It means you played well in the wrong week.

Over time, though, this balances out. You play well in the right week, and it all falls into place. This is what happened to Sergio Garcia at the 2017 Masters. Sergio isn’t better or worse than he has been for the last 10 years. He just played well in the right week. This is what will happen with Fowler, too. At some point in the next five years, he’ll play at the level he’s been playing at for the past five years, and nobody else will challenge him. And then he’ll win a major.

It’s almost impossible for this to not happen if you’re playing at that level for an extended period of time. The thing about golf that makes for bad narratives is that there are 155 “losers” every week. Either nine or 10 of the 10 best players in the world lose every week. That’s crazy, but it’s also the reality of the sport.

The counterpoint here is that Rickie needs another gear. He can’t keep up with the Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnsons when they hit the gas pedal. This is what some posit as his “problem.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with the take that he doesn’t have that 6th gear those guys have at times, but it’s hard to really cling to it after what happened at the 2015 Players Championship when he played the last six holes in 6 under and then played the four playoff holes in 2 under. That is another gear. It just wasn’t a major championship.

And majors are what Fowler has his eye on at this point in his career. He’s won six times worldwide, has a Players and has consistently been in the top 10 in the world for the last few years.

“I put myself in contention the first two (majors),” said Fowler on Sunday at Quail Hollow. “It wasn’t a great British, but not bad. To be here, play solid the first two days and put myself in contention, was really in the mix until those last three yesterday. Obviously I wasn’t out of it, but it was going to take a really good round today to give ourselves a chance. Nice coming off of last year. Made all the cuts. That’s a good step.”

It is a good step. He finished fourth in the aggregate major championship standings of 2017. You do that enough times over enough years, and you’re going to run into a major.

Spieth and Rory have fooled us into thinking that winning 3-4 majors before turning 30 is the norm. It’s not. It’s preposterously difficult to win a major, and there are only four of them every year. Even if you have a 20-year career in which you play every single major, that’s only 80 cracks at it against the 150 or so best players in the world.

Rickie Fowler will win a major. I don’t know when and I don’t know which one. But if he keeps playing at the clip he played at in 2017 — he’s currently No. 1 on the Tour in strokes gained — it will happen sooner rather than later.

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