02/07/2016

Maybe we would over thought this Big 4 thing. Not that those accepted as the top quad don’t deserve the stature; rather, the arbitrary number doesn’t properly define the talent in the game.

On Sunday afternoon, Hideki Matsuyama out-dueled Rickie Fowler, who occupies a place in the Big 4, to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open in four extra holes. By playing the playoff in one-under, Matsuyama earned his second ever PGA Tour win, a number that Fowler matched only last year.

In other words, the 23-year-old has some two-and-half seasons to match Rickie’s pace. Let that marinate for a while as you consider just how skilled this new generation of golfers is. Matsuyama has played well in Major Championships before, most notably at Augusta where he claimed a solo fifth, and is just plain consistent. In 25 2015 events, he made 23 cuts and finished in the top-25 19 times.

He just didn’t have the finish so many predicted for him. Sound familiar?

This isn’t to offer a straight comparison of Matsuyama to Fowler. Instead, it should suggest the dangers of limiting the sport to four. Even if the four have merit.

In fact, Fowler played with the same steely resolve he’s demonstrated over the last nine months, a period that has produced four wins world wide for the American. He started out the day three shots back of fellow talented youngster Danny Lee. When Lee faltered, Fowler pounced. As he stood on the 17th tee he held a two-stroke lead with two to play. Ironically, it was his zeal that cost him.

If there was one thread that connected Fowler’s two victories stateside in 2015, it was his ability to dial it up with the driver. By no means a long hitter, Fowler pounded drives well more than 300 yards that split fairways.

Such was the case at TPC Scottsdale as well. Until 17 that is—Fowler went for the win. He yanked out his driver and hit a cut, a decision that backfired two-fold when the spin on the ball allowed it to roll over the green and into the hazard. It was a 360-yard bomb of a drive. And a wet one.

Matsuyama hit 3-wood on his way to a birdie, which tied them atop the leaderboard at -12.

[bctt tweet=”In 25 2015 events, he made 23 cuts and finished in the top-25 19 times.”]

Driving Series

But the mistake—an eventual bogey—didn’t faze Fowler. Nor did Matsuyama. The Japanese star drained a long birdie on 18 to put the pressure on Fowler, who faced a shorter putt. Fowler buried his as well.

The extra holes cut into more than a few Super Bowl parties. Though, to be fair, it was quality theater and likely better than whatever CBS was showing in the lead-up to the big game. Par, birdie, par sent Matsuyama and Fowler to a fourth playoff hole.

It was back to the 17. And again, Fowler made a critical mistake. He hooked his 3-wood into the water as Matsuyama landed just short of the green. Fowler couldn’t get up and down, and Matsuyama collected the victory.

Given the characters involved, it’s hard not to see this result as Fowler’s loss. On the sport’s loudest stage, one of its most popular players gave away a sure shot at a win. That he did it in front of his father and grandfather, neither of whom have seen Fowler win in person, made it all the more emotional.

But credit Matsuyama for remaining strong. At 5-11, 198 pounds, he strikes a stout, sturdy figure. He also plays slow, so much so that all his movements appear measured and deliberate. Matsuyama always seems in control.

That demeanor will take him places as much as his undeniable talent. How quickly and how far will determine his standing in the modern game. Matsuyama may not yet threaten Fowler’s place in the so-called Big 4.

But he did beat him on Sunday.