Pádraig Harrington pointed out over a month ago that the modern game was so replete with superstars at the top level — he named at least five who’d be unbeatable on their day — that Rickie Fowler’s victory in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship came as no surprise.
The third man in the marquee group featuring world No 1 Jordan Spieth and No 3 Rory McIlroy over the first two days, the Californian ended up winning by a shot from the massive hitting Belgian Thomas Pieters.
Rory McIlroy ended up third with Henrik Stenson but only changed the look of the leaderboard when he was out of contention, closing with three birdies from the 12th followed by an impressive long range eagle putt at the last for a 68.
The Holywood star began the final round three behind Fowler, who completed a third round 65 early in the day to lead by two.
McIlroy then played the front nine in one over par 37, hitting just one fairway, as Fowler played the same stretch in two under.
The American closed with a 69 to win by one from Pieters but it was the manner of his win that stood out — a brace of birdies to start, an unlucly double at the seventh followed by a holed bunker shot for eagle at the eighth, a chip in birdie at the 17th just when Pieters (and McIlroy) were threatning to reduce his lead to one stroke.
Harrington predicted late last year that an explosive head to head betwen McIlroy and Jordan Spieth with both playing at the top of their game was unlikely to happen.
He also pointed out that there was a lot going on at the top of the game apart from Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy.
“As good as Rickie is, and I always pick him out as the star to watch, I was baffled by his selection at the start of (last) year as the underachiever,” Harrington said of the player who won The Players, the Scottish Open and the Deutsche Bank Championship last season.
“I don’t think he overachieved at all. I think Rickie Fowler is the real deal, not that I’m saying something people don’t already know. He could easily be in that top three. Physically he has got a great game and his head is in the right place.
“It is silly to count those top three when there is Bubba Watson — and this is the difference from the Tiger era. When Tiger turned up with his A game, he dominated the field. There are probably four guys and a few fringe players on top of that, if they turn up with their A game, they are going to dominate the field.
“It is unlikely they will turn up with their A game and somebody else will turn up with theirs too. It will be fascinating to watch all these guys with their A games but what we are seeing more and more because of the strength in depth is A games winning and nothing else.
"Somebody is going to play lights out every week. Whereas Tiger was able to win with his B game. I am not saying these guys don’t have a good B game, but that they likelihood is that somebody is going to have their A game every week.”
Fowler is now up from sixth to fourth in the world but with McIlroy not firing on all cylinders and Spieth (68) somehow scrambling his way into a share of fifth with his B game, it only remains for Bubba Watson to beat what’s now being called the Big Four during the West Coast swing for the moniker to be changed to Big Five in time for Augusta.
“I was talking with Michael up the 18th fairway saying, wow, a birdie here and we’re definitely Top-10, and I felt like we were off this week,” Spieth said. "I didn't make anything. I didn't quite give a few myself a lot of chances the first couple rounds.
“I didn't get in a rhythm, and when I did have chances, they just wouldn't go in. I was just a little off on the read or the speed, one of the two. Sometimes that happens during a week, and we kind of grinded out eight-under on the weekend in what really could have been something special, but it also could have been worse.”
Fowler didn’t have his A game either but rounds of 70 68 65 and 69 were enough to get the job done and remind everyone in Europe that the United States Ryder Cup team will be very strong indeed.
Naturally, he’s eyeing a major win and the world No 1 ranking. On paper, it’s achievable. In reality, it’s now a question of seeing who can best prepare for the really big weeks and claim those major prizes.
“I think golf’s just in a really good position right now,” Fowler said. "Having what Jason did last year through the summer, what Jordan did all year, still doing it, and Rory, I mean, he had a "not-so-good" year and won, I think it was four times or something. That's a pretty good not-so-good year.
"Yeah, the guys at the top of playing really well, and I look back at Kapalua, having played decent, but if you don't have your A Game and you're not playing well, you're not going to win. Because some guys, someone's going to show up and play well that week. The level of golf is very high, and it's pretty special to be ranked fourth now.
“I've got my eye sight on 1, that would be the ultimate goal, but I'm up against some pretty tough competition".
McIlroy sank a monster eagle putt at the last to join Stenson in posting a clubhouse target of 14 under but it was never going to be enough with Fowler and Pieters both ahead of him with the reachable par-five 18th to play.
“I really just left myself too much to do, with the back nine that I played in the third round and then the front nine that I played in the final round here this afternoo,” McIlroy said. " I think I played those holes in 1-over par, which you can’t do.
“So if I had to take anything back from this week, it would have been that stretch of holes where I just didn't quite have anything going my way, and as I said, just left myself too much to do with nine holes to go."
McIlroy played the last few holes with a resigned swagger, chipping in for birdie from the rough and holing that huge eagle putt. For a first apeparance of the season, it was another good week in Abu Dhabi where he now has four seconds and two third places finished in Abu Dhabi in his last seven appearances.
He added: "I feel my game is in good shape going into this run of golf that I’ve got coming up. It's a busy schedule that I've got going into the Masters. I would have liked to have started the season just that little bit better with a win, but I feel my performance here, I can take plenty away from it and build on it and build gradually up towards the first major of the season at Augusta.”
Fowler will also have one eye on the Masters and he could not have been happier with his sixth win as a professional.
“This was a big one,” he said. "Last year, obviously having a multiple-win season, I wanted to come back and work on getting back in the winner's circle after a successful season and keep moving forward - this is a great start.
“When something happens like that (shot at eight), it definitely gives you a little boost of confidence knowing that you've got a good break with that after having a bad break, and sometimes you need to little luck on your side to get some wins.
“It’s the first time I've been inside the top five (on World Rankings). I've gotten in the five, so this is the highest, or lowest, however you want to say it, I've been ranked. So it's definitely nice to be up there. The ultimate goal this year is to go win a major and this is a step in the right direction for sure.
“I've got my eye sight on one (in the world), that would be the ultimate goal, but I'm up against some pretty tough competition.
“I'm excited. There's definitely some fine-tuning that we can do and we can always get better. I know all the players out here are always trying to get better, and that’s the goal moving forward, to be ready for Augusta.”
Darren Clarke (72) and Michael Hoey (74) finished near the back of the field on one under and level par respectively.
272 R Fowler (USA) 70 68 65 69,
273 T Pieters (Bel) 69 73 64 67,
274 R McIlroy (Nir) 66 70 70 68, H Stenson (Swe) 65 72 70 67,
277 J Luiten (Ned) 69 68 68 72, B Grace (RSA) 66 74 66 71, M Siem (Ger) 72 68 70 67, A Cañizares (Esp) 71 71 66 69, B An (Kor) 69 68 69 71, J Spieth (USA) 68 73 68 68,
278 T Bjørn (Den) 68 69 71 70, P Hanson (Swe) 69 69 69 71, S Kapur (Ind) 74 69 65 70,
279 R Cabrera-Bello (Esp) 70 67 70 72, I Poulter (Eng) 70 69 68 72,
280 W Ashun (Chn) 69 72 69 70, J Carlsson (Swe) 69 71 71 69, M Kieffer (Ger) 71 71 68 70, T Fisher Jnr (RSA) 69 70 70 71, M Kaymer (Ger) 69 69 71 71, R Ramsay (Sco) 73 66 72 69,
281 D Drysdale (Sco) 71 71 70 69, J Lagergren (Swe) 70 73 73 65, M Ilonen (Fin) 71 71 70 69, A Sullivan (Eng) 67 67 74 73,
282 B Wiesberger (Aut) 72 70 70 70, F Zanotti (Par) 70 69 69 74, B Stone (RSA) 73 69 68 72, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 68 71 73 70, M Baldwin (Eng) 69 70 67 76, R Rock (Eng) 70 67 71 74, M Carlsson (Swe) 71 72 72 67, P Larrazábal (Esp) 70 71 73 68, W Ormsby (Aus) 69 70 74 69,
283 R Fisher (Eng) 70 73 73 67, B Dredge (Wal) 72 67 73 71, A Noren (Swe) 72 70 70 71, D Horsey (Eng) 71 68 71 73, G Coetzee (RSA) 69 72 69 73, D Howell (Eng) 68 69 73 73, R Knox (Sco) 70 73 71 69, P Meesawat (Tha) 72 67 74 70, O Fisher (Eng) 72 71 68 72, B Rumford (Aus) 73 67 70 73, K Broberg (Swe) 73 69 74 67,
284 T Hatton (Eng) 72 69 74 69, E Pepperell (Eng) 70 71 69 74, T Jaidee (Tha) 71 70 67 76, B Evans (Eng) 70 72 68 74, S Jamieson (Sco) 70 73 66 75, B Hebert (Fra) 71 72 70 71,
285 M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra) 70 72 67 76, R Bland (Eng) 67 71 75 72,
286 S Hend (Aus) 72 71 73 70, N Fasth (Swe) 68 72 73 73, S Kjeldsen (Den) 69 72 71 74, D Willett (Eng) 75 68 69 74, G Bourdy (Fra) 72 71 72 71, J Morrison (Eng) 72 68 70 76, B Dechambeau (am) (USA) 64 72 78 72,
287 D Brooks (Eng) 69 74 71 73, E De La Riva (Esp) 72 69 76 70, R Gouveia (Por) 72 71 72 72, S Dyson (Eng) 69 72 74 72, D Clarke (Nir) 73 70 72 72,
288 M Hoey (Nir) 72 69 73 74, R Karlberg (Swe) 74 69 74 71, M Madsen (Den) 72 71 71 74,
289 M Korhonen (Fin) 69 73 74 73,
292 R Kakko (Fin) 72 68 75 77,
293 A Johnston (Eng) 70 73 72 78,
297 K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 70 71 78 78, T Olesen (Den) 71 72 76 78.