Commentary

Five things we learned

Updated: May 7, 2012, 11:27 AM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

"At Last." It might seem unfair to pin an Etta James song on a 23-year-old kid in only his third full year on the PGA Tour, but Rickie Fowler isn't your average young buck. He's got style and flair and a mustache set in the 1970s. The former Oklahoma State star has had more instruction than his Golf Boys band mate, Bubba Watson, but he's way more Lanny Wadkins than he is Charles Howell III. The Murrieta, Calif., native is deliberately cool and bold enough to wear Fanta orange on Sundays, but self-effacing enough to never pump his own chest.

Fowler's impressive win on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship went down like a cold Fanta on a hot summer day. There hadn't been any doubt that he would win on tour since he made the Ryder Cup as a rookie in 2010, but the fame and money usually come after a couple of trophies. Things moved fast for Fowler, and before he knew it, he was one of the most popular young American players on tour. If you were the cynical sort, you could have branded him a fad, but he never acted like he didn't belong on tour.

In late 2009, he nearly made enough money to get his tour card without going to Q-school after coming up short in a playoff at the Frys.com Open. The next year, in his first full season on tour, he had seven top-10s, including two seconds. When Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin made Fowler one of his four captain's selections, it was considered by many to be a "reach" pick, but he fought hard for a 0-1-2 record that included a memorable singles match in which he birdied the final four holes to notch a halve with Italy's Edoardo Molinari.

Last year was supposed to be a breakout year for Fowler, but it was a pretty mediocre campaign until he beat Rory McIlroy by six strokes in October to get his first professional win at the Kolon Korea Open. It was an important milestone for Fowler because by then McIlroy had asserted himself as the best player of his generation. Fowler had the flash, but the Northern Irishman had the game for the long run. That's how it looks right now, but things could change down the road.

Fowler made a strong case on Sunday for why McIlroy will have to contend with him for the next 20 years. In the first playoff hole with D.A. Points and McIlroy, Fowler hit the approach shot of his life to set up a short birdie putt that he holed to earn his first PGA Tour victory.

Fowler doesn't have the polished game or length of McIlroy but is a very fierce competitor. Even though they are the same age, McIlroy has much more professional experience than Fowler, who was playing college golf when the reigning U.S. Open champion turned pro in 2007.

Still, Fowler will win his share of tournaments. He'll be among several excellent players over the next dozen years to challenge McIlroy for golf supremacy. Time will tell how well Fowler's freewheeling game endures under pressure, but one thing we know is that few players will match his rare combination of style and substance.

The Cut Man
The former world No. 1 and 14-time major winner started his week at Quail Hollow by explaining how he had fixed the swing issues that plagued him at the Masters. And on Friday afternoon, after he missed the cut by a shot, he was still talking about his golf swing.

"If I get over the golf ball and I feel uncomfortable, I hit it great," Tiger Woods said on Friday. "It's just that I get out there and I want to get comfortable, and I follow my old stuff, and I hit it awful.

"All the shots I got uncomfortable on, I just said, 'I'm going to get really uncomfortable and make it feel as bad as it possibly could,' I striped it. I know what I need to do, it's just I need more reps doing it."

Wells Fargo marked only the eighth time that Tiger has missed a cut since turning pro in 1996. Eight missed cuts in 267 career PGA Tour events is an amazing accomplishment. Yet with each passing week, Tiger has grown more neurotic and frustrated about his game. We shouldn't be surprised if weekends off become a more regular occurrence for the 72-time winner. His victory in March at Bay Hill now seems more like a minor detour from a downward spiral as an everyman tour player who wins on occasion.

But missing cuts are a routine part of playing the game on a regular basis. As the years pass, Tiger will certainly miss more cuts. Phil Mickelson had two years -- 1993 and 1995 -- when he missed nine cuts each season. But his Hall of Fame career isn't being measured by cuts. Jack Nicklaus had a stretch from 1962 to 1979 when he only missed nine cuts in 335 tour events. Yet what we remember most about his illustrious career are the 18 major championships.

Cuts give a good barometer of consistency, but they never fully explain the plight of a player, unless he's missing the weekend week after week.

So Tiger can't let a minor setback like a missed cut here and there allow him to lose sight of his ultimate goal of passing Nicklaus' majors record. Not playing on the weekend at Quail Hollow might have been embarrassing for him and a cause for some alarm about the shape of his game as he approaches the Players and the U.S. Open, but it doesn't mean he should scrap everything that he's been working on for the last couple of years.

At the end of his career, none of us will remember how poorly Tiger played at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship, unless it marks the beginning of a long, slow decline of his game. Every player knows the moment when it becomes very difficult to simply make a PGA Tour cut, and Tiger is light years from that lonely place.

Seesaw Battle
On Cinco De Mayo, while Jason Dufner was somewhere with his new bride, I was watching Floyd Mayweather Jr. win a good fight against Miguel Cotto. For the previous several days I had watched Mayweather boast on HBO's "24/7" about his invincibility. The 35-year-old boxer never lets anyone forget that he's unbeaten. He's been No .1 year after year, regardless of the weight class.

Boxing has had an easier timer of ranking its champions than golf, which is witnessing a seesaw battle for No. 1 between Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald. McIlroy got it back from Donald, who had taken it from him the previous week in New Orleans, where Donald finished third.

Mayweather beat Cotto in a 12-round unanimous decision. Mayweather will be No. 1 probably until somebody beats him or he retires. If things keeping going this way with McIlroy and Donald, it could come down to a head-to-head battle between them at some point in the season. The European Ryder Cup teammates could spar over the weekend at the Players Championship. It would make for great TV if No. 1 came down to the last three holes on the Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass on Sunday afternoon: the eagle-friendly par-5 16th, the iconic 17th and the 18th, a very difficult driving hole.

It sounds like a fantasy, but it's a great deal more interesting and real than the players trading places in a sophisticated but perplexing points system.

Tough as Nails
Since winning the 2005 Players Championship, Fred Funk has probably spent more time with trainers and doctors than working on his game. In 2008, he had a staph infection in his right knee and knee-replacement surgery on that same knee a year later. Last year he had two thumb surgeries.

It's hard to find a tougher competitor than this 55-year-old former University of Maryland golf coach. Few players of any age are able to come back from so many injuries, but Funk proves that with proper rehab, it's possible to get back into top form.

It wasn't a surprise that he beat his pal Tom Lehman by a stroke on Sunday at the Insperity Championship in Houston.

Funk's seventh Champions Tour win came at the Woodlands Country Club, the same course where he won the 1992 Shell Houston Open, the first of his eight PGA Tour titles.

He birdied four of his last five holes for a 5-under 67.

The Green Mile
In 2017, Quail Hollow will host the PGA Championship. Its final three holes, nicknamed the "Green Mile," will make the already difficult trio even more punitive in a PGA Championship setup. This past week the 18th, a 478-yard par-4, ranked as the toughest hole on the course with a 4.33 stroke average. The 16th and the 17th also played over par for the week. On Sunday, there were only four birdies on the 18th.

The tees were moved on the par-3 17th to give players a better angle to green. Many in the field loved the change and scores were pretty good, especially during the first two rounds. The cut came at 1-under, but on the weekend the numbers didn't move much.

Changes still have to be made on the controversial 12th green before the PGA Championship, but with more rough the beautiful 7,442-yard course that was renovated by Tom Fazio in 1993 and 2007 could make for a difficult but fair challenge at the '17 PGA Championship.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.

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