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Don't blame Rickie Fowler’s Phoenix Open loss on one controversial club selection

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Rickie Fowler was crushed for hitting a driver that went into the water when he had a two-shot lead with two holes to play. Here's why that quick critique was wrong.

Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

After Rickie Fowler cranked a drive 358 yards (easily the longest drive he hit all week) through the green on the 71st hole of the Phoenix Open and into the water, the three-time PGA Tour winner came under fire for his decision to reach for the driver with a two-shot lead with just two holes to play. Here’s the clip:

Hindsight in sports is 20/20, but in the golf world it’s 20/10.

A disclaimer: I am a Rickie Fowler apologist. But I can confidently write that I would take the exact same position if it was any other player that put one in the water in that situation with the tournament on the line.

Here’s a screen shot of where his ball lands:

This next frame shows how far away the front of the green is from the hill that the ball landed on in frame 1.

From the front of the green to the water behind the green measures 53 yards, so I’m comfortable saying that his ball rolled about 80 yards after hitting the ground.

It's easy to criticize the decision from your couch, or even the TV booth on site. But the player is making the club choice in the arena, at ground level, and obviously without the information that we have when we’re able to use hindsight while watching on TV.

If you thought Fowler should not have hit a driver because you knew the risk of him hitting a downslope, and the ball rolling out an additional 80 or so yards (on a week where the ball wasn’t even rolling out in the fairway), then you are capable of envisioning the outcome of one of the most unpredictable games in a way that I am not familiar.

A player needs to make about 40 full swing judgment decisions in a single round based on wind direction, best places to miss, what you’re most comfortable with hitting, the score scenario, and several other factors. The 17th hole at TPC Scottsdale was no exception to this. NBC did a nice job catching the key part of the dialogue between caddie Joe Skovron and Fowler. Skovron mentioned that it was 265 to clear the trap on the right, and if he didn’t hit his 3-wood perfectly, that was going to be an issue. It’s 287 to reach the water on the left, so if you do have the length to clear that bunker on the right, that means it will have the length to reach the water on the left. From this, I’m guessing that Fowler and Skovron calculated that a driver was actually the safer club choice of the two, and that it was more likely for him to go in the bunker with the 3-wood than his ball roll 80-plus yards into the water.

Fowler was absolutely striping it (his 4.743 strokes gained tee-to-green on Sunday led the entire field) and he proceeded to hit probably his best shot of the day -- on what looked like about a 90% swing. The ball lands on a downslope, behind where Hideki Matsuyama’s 3-wood actually landed, and somehow rolls all the way off the back of the green to a watery grave. If it lands five yards shorter or five yards longer, it’s perfect, and he’s cruising to a win. But he got a bad break, so people are bound to point to the result and go from there. And if you really want to use hindsight, he needed to play the last two holes in 1-under to win. If he had known that, imagine how much heat he'd be taking for laying up on one of the easiest holes out there.

Professional golfers are incredibly proficient at knowing their games, their yardages, their strengths, their weaknesses, and the scenario. Yet every single round, we see players miss greens long and short with irons in their hands, and look more confused than they would if they were trying to solve an algebraic equation. Add in the bad break set out above, and the fact that the ball went 358 yards, and I have a hard time even calling this a miscalculation. He picked out a shot, and executed it perfectly.

Here’s what Fowler had to say afterward: "I mean, it's gonna hurt because I felt like I had it, especially with the way I was swinging. 17, it was 304 front and then we had an extra, it's like 26 or, I don't know, there's 30-some yards until the back bunker. It's 330-plus.

Figured -- I'm hitting a chip-cut driver. Usually don't expect it to hit on the downslope and then go 360.

So that was a bit unfortunate. I hit it right on line, hit it exactly where I was looking. That's kind of the unfortunate part to hit the shots that I did and to pull them off and then it kind of backfired there. Hit a perfect shot."

Those that were clamoring for him to hit a 3-wood in regulation were strangely silent when he did pull that club in the playoff, only to again find the water, this time left of the green.

If you want to argue that he should have hit iron off the tee, you would be asking him to play the hole in a way he’s probably never played it before. Not to mention, taking iron off the tee brings a bunker into play at 211 yards to the left, and another one at 222 yards to the right. Even from the middle of the fairway there, you leave yourself 100 yards to a pin that’s surrounded by water to the left, and long. The hole has just been a nightmare for Fowler and has never fit his eye. That second water ball in the playoff was the ninth time he put one in that hazard in his career.

Critics took the angle of Rickie being overaggressive, even invoking the name of Van de Velde for blowing his two-shot lead while trying to put an exclamation point on the tournament. But if this was the 16th hole, and Fowler misclubbed with an 8-iron and went long and made bogey, would we be all over him for misclubbing? The fact that the error was made with a driver made it look more audacious than it really was. But this is a lot closer to Tiger hitting the pin on No. 15 at the 2013 Masters than it is Phil hitting a wayward driver on the 18th at Winged Foot in 2006.

Fowler was confident he could pull the shot off, and he did. A combination of a (perhaps) bad calculation, a bad break, and a smoked "chip-cut" drive was Rickie’s downfall.

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