- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The game of golf will be just fine if its young stars can produce as they did Sunday at Quail Hollow. Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy battling in a playoff, with journeyman D.A. Points playing the foil. Good stuff, and hard to call anybody a loser after the drama that unfolded.
Fowler emerged the winner, stiffing a 51-degree wedge shot at the first extra hole to 4 feet, then watching the more accomplished McIlroy fail to convert his birdie putt from a longer distance.
The victory was long-awaited for Fowler, 23, who emerged from Oklahoma State three years ago and almost immediately lost in a playoff, perhaps ratcheting up expectations that dogged him as he toiled in his all-orange Sunday garb as tournaments passed without victory.
"After 20 years of this, I've learned to stay pretty calm," said Fowler's mother, Lynn, referring to all the days of junior golf, amateur golf and now professional golf. "It's easy watching normal rounds. A playoff hole is sort of like watching match play. Every stroke counts, every hole counts. You feel like you're going to throw up every time they swing the club."
That wasn't the case when Fowler lofted that wedge shot onto the 18th green in the playoff. It played as the hardest hole of the day, the green was treacherous, the pin tucked near the left side where a creek came into play.
A regular pitching wedge might have been more prudent, but Fowler wasn't going to be cautious.
"It was either going to go there or it might go in the creek," Points said. "The shot he hit was spectacular."
"I definitely didn't want to play safe," Fowler said. "I had a good number [133 yards], and I was aiming right of the hole with the wind coming out of the right, and if I hit a perfect shot, it comes down right on the stick, and I think we came down just left of it.
"I hit the perfect shot at the right time, and I was going for it."
Said McIlroy: "You wouldn't have called the 18th today a birdie hole with that pin. For Rickie to go out and play that hole the way he did, he deserved to win."
McIlroy, 23, was understandably dejected afterward. The reigning U.S. Open champion, who won the Honda Classic in March, went back to No. 1 in the world with his second-place finish, an achievement he called a small consolation. "I wanted to win," said McIlroy, who has now finished in the top three in four of his five tournaments this year on the PGA Tour.
McIlroy finished second to Fowler by six strokes last fall at the Kolon Korean Open, a OneAsia Tour event that Fowler claimed for his first professional victory. It wasn't given a lot of credence at the time, because the tour is well beneath the level of the PGA Tour. But Y.E. Yang was also in the field and it can't hurt to beat McIlroy twice.
Like many, McIlroy believed it was just a matter of time for Fowler, who despite a good bit of promise, really had not been in contention this year. Although he was picked to the U.S. Ryder Cup team as a rookie in 2010, he failed to make the Presidents Cup team last year. And there was a good bit of talk that perhaps Fowler was overrated.
But he never appeared deterred. Fowler has gone it alone since his only coach, Barry McDonnel, passed away at age 75 last year. Talking about him Sunday nearly brought Fowler to tears, although it is clear he expected this day to come.
"He's 23 years old and he knows how good he is," said Joe Skovron, Fowler's caddie since he turned pro.
The two have known each other since Fowler was 4, when they met at the same driving range and course in Northern California.
"He knew it was coming, just a matter of time," Skovron said. "Maybe some frustration at times, but he always handled it great."
As was the case last month when Fowler was in the gallery for Bubba Watson's victory at the Masters, several of Fowler's tour friends, including Ben Crane, waited around Sunday and were on the 18th green to congratulate him.
Crane, along with Watson, Fowler and Hunter Mahan, make up a goofy group known as the Golf Boys that produced a You Tube video that most consider funny, if not unwatchable.
"I'm really, really excited for him. He's a member of the band, c'mon," Crane said. "For his sake, I'm thankful it's sooner as opposed to later. I think it just opens the gates from here. I'm just thankful for my friend, who has done a lot of things right. His game is so good.
"To do it at such a great event like this, one of the best fields we face all year, and then to get in a playoff and play two perfect shots like that and seal it with a putt. That's a pretty cool way to do it."
Aaron Baddeley, who was also in Watson's gallery at Augusta, was there to greet Fowler as well.
"It's kind of a burden lifted off your shoulders and also the confidence that you can win on a golf course like this beating now the best player in the world, Rory, who is going to go back to No. 1. That's twice he's beaten Rory head to head."
Watson did not enter this week's event, but he did send out two congratulatory tweets, proclaiming that "Golf is better than ever!!"
It is certainly not bad when it works out as it did Sunday. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were nowhere in sight, the reigning Masters champion as well as the deposed No. 1, Luke Donald, were not even in the tournament.
Rickie and Rory were left to provide the drama, and they did a terrific job.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.