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Rickie Fowler And The Rise Of Golf's 20-Somethings

Rickie Fowler tees off on the 17th hole during the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament in Norton, Mass., Monday, Sept. 7, 2015.
Rickie Fowler tees off on the 17th hole during the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament in Norton, Mass., Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. (Michael Dwyer / AP)

NORTON, MASS. — Rickie Fowler has that lucrative Cobra-Puma endorsement. Rickie has those wild orange outfits and those signature caps. Rickie has the Leonardo DiCaprio looks. Rickie has swimsuit model Alexis Randcock as his girlfriend.

Rickie had top-five finishes in all four majors in 2014, only the third golfer in history to do so. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the other two. Yes, Rickie has lots of things.

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What he doesn't have is the last name Spieth. Or McIlroy. Or Day.

On Sunday, he admitted that it motivated him.

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On Monday, Fowler did something about it.

On a FedEx Cup playoff week when Jordan Spieth missed the cut, Jason Day faded in the third round and tied for 12th, and Rory McIlroy needed a five-under final round to finish in a tie for 29th, Fowler outdueled Henrik Stenson to win the Deutsche Bank Championship by one stroke.

Stenson blinked in the wind on the 16th hole and just like that it was over.

PGA Tour victory: No. 3 for Fowler. Payday: $1.5 million.

Deutsche Bank Monday is a little like Selection Sunday in college basketball. Everybody is trying to figure out who has best positioned himself for the final two tournaments and the massive $10 million payday for winning the FedEx Cup. Everybody is trying to figure out who has missed the cut down to 70 players heading into the BMW Championship.

Adding to that theme is the current statistical weirdness surrounding the No. 1 world ranking. It's McIlroy. No, it's Spieth. No, it's McIlroy.

Life was so much easier when Tiger Woods ruled the Earth.

In an anonymous Sports Illustrated vote by his peers in May, Fowler and Ian Poulter tied at 24 percent as the most overrated golfers on the PGA Tour. Fowler had an answer that week. He went out and won the Players Championship, the "fifth major" and one that actually drew the best field of the year.

Of course, Fowler also is the only golfer to finish in the top five of four majors in one year without winning any of them. And with Tiger's career wilted, it is McIlroy, Spieth and Day who have won five of the past six majors and dreamily evoked memories of the Palmer, Nicklaus and Player — the Big Three of golfing yore.

Spieth is 22. McIlroy is 26. Day is 27.

In case everybody forgot, Rick, the young DiCaprio, is 26.

"It definitely has been motivational to go out and be on the same level as those guys," Fowler said.

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Playing in the final pairing with Stenson, Fowler sank a 34-foot putt to eagle the second hole, but he bogeyed the third and fourth holes. By the time the two left the 10th green where Stenson sank a 14-foot birdie putt, the Swede stood at 16-under and had a three-stroke lead. That changed in a heartbeat when Fowler sank a 13-foot putt and Stenson bogeyed No. 11.

A three-stroke lead shrank to one. Game on!

Fowler called the 5-wood he hit into 11 as his best shot of the day. Stenson, however, immediately struck back on the 12th with a 37-foot birdie putt to go ahead two strokes.

Only it wasn't over. Fowler drained a 38-foot putt on No. 14 to again slice the lead to one.

"I told my caddie at one point, 'Wouldn't it be great if Henrik and I could distance ourselves and make it a bit of our own tournament and have our own shootout,' " Fowler said. "It was a lot of fun going back and forth. Not a whole lot of mistakes were made."

That's when 16 happened. Stenson put his tee shot on the 188-yard, par-3 off the rocks abutting the green and dribbling into the pond. He put a shot from the drop area to within 14 feet. He missed the bogey putt. Fowler's tip-in par gave him the one-shot lead he would not relinquish.

"The wind was pretty firm up above the trees [on 16]," Stenson said. "I felt like I needed to go a bit harder with that 7-iron. Rickie hit a small 6. I ballooned it a little bit, and into the wind it was just stalling."

Stenson called it a little bit of a dilemma.

And then he realized the gravity of that little dilemma.

"That was really the killer blow for the week," Stenson said.

With the 2,000 points, Fowler moved from 22nd to third in the FedEx Cup. He also moved into a top-five spot heading into the championship, meaning regardless of what happens at the BMW Championship outside Chicago a victory in the final even in Atlanta would guarantee the Fed Ex title. Day is first in the FedEx standings. Spieth is second.

There has been a sizzle over substance reputation with Fowler. That happens when you're that talented a young golfer with only one PGA Tour victory headed into 2014. He isn't big. He's 5-9, 150 pounds. His famous caps? "Size seven," he said. "I had a small noggin."

The kid with the small noggin also clearly burns to be great. That SI poll must have gotten under his skin a bit. And all the talk of the Big Three?

"I want to be the best player in the world at some point," said Fowler, who also won the Scottish Open this year. "But, yes, being overrated. I won three times, so thanks for the poll.

"With the three guys they talk about, Jason, Rory and Jordan, they've clearly played the best out of anyone the past few months to couple of years. I'm trying to be a small fourth thrown in there."

So there was Spieth, the most unflappable kid in golf at the Masters, the coolest hand at the U.S. Open, going home after the second round. He missed the cut at Barclays. He missed the cut at Deutsche.

"Normally my mental game is a strength of mine," Spieth told reporters Saturday after he missed back-to-back cuts for the first time. "It's something I feel like I have an advantage over other players on. These past two weeks, it was a weakness for me."

Spieth said he didn't need to fix much. He said he just needed to "walk with some cockiness in his step" in the final two FedEx events. Day, on the other hand, is a golfer in sore need of a nap. He won the PGA Championship. He won Barclays. He finally hit the wall.

"I just haven't stopped," Day said. "I had no time to sleep."

With the fall of Tiger Woods and the rise of these 20-somethings, this is both an exciting and weird time at the top of the golf ladder.

Consider the world rankings. With Spieth missing the cut, McIlroy replaced the young Texan as No. 1 last week by skipping Barclays to rest his recovering left ankle. This week, Spieth missed the cut again. McIlroy finishes 29th, and guess what? Spieth replaces McIlroy at No. 1. Wait. There's more.

Although there is a week off before the BMW, McIlroy will retake the No. 1 ranking next week without either playing.

Got it?

"I only stayed in school until I was 15," McIlroy said. "I don't completely understand it, but I know it's because of the divisor."

The current ranking system in professional tennis calculates how many points a player earns over a rolling 12-month period. Golf uses a rolling two-year system. Tournaments with stronger fields mean more points. Recent tournaments are given more weight. The divisor McIlroy was talking about? There's a max divisor of 52 events over the two-year period, a minimum of 40 and playing in fewer events actually can help you.

"I think two years is a reflection of how you played," said McIlroy, who has played in 11 fewer tournaments than Spieth over two years. "I don't know any other way we could determine the best player in the world."

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McIlroy's answer?

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"Just keep playing and playing well," McIlroy said.

Fowler said much the same thing. Before this year, Day also had the stigma Fowler has endured: Too talented not to win more.

"We are good buddies," Fowler said. "It's been a big year for us … and an awesome day for me."

On this awesome day, Fowler graciously had a glass of Taittenger champagne handed out to any member of the media corps who wanted one. He walked into the media tent and thanked everyone for the coverage. Young Caprio likes winning.

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