Rickie Fowler spent several minutes searching for his ball. He even borrowed binoculars to peer high into a palm tree as several spectators furiously shook it.
At one point, Fowler looked like a seasoned bird watcher.
A few minutes later, he was staring at a double bogey.
Fowler’s errant and unlucky tee shot at the par-4 sixth proved the turning point in his round Friday and his week at The Players Championship. Fowler’s ball landed in the 40-foot tree and never came down, prompting a penalty stroke that sent him back to the tee box and left him clearly flustered.
With three birdies in five holes to start his back nine, the 2015 Players champion was making a move up the leaderboard and providing some rare highlights from a mega grouping that featured fan favorites Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
But Fowler’s unfavorable landing spot led to the first of consecutive double bogeys, leading to a 1-under 71 on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. He likely will miss the cut at 1-over 145.
“Kind of bad break in timing this year,” said Fowler, who also landed a ball in a tree at No. 18 last year. “Kind of had got things going, was in a good spot and would have been nice to kind of finish off the round where we were, try and get one or two more coming in.”
Fowler lamented his luck by saying the shot was only a few yards right of the fairway, with volunteer marshals and of fans nearby. All of them, he said, saw it land in the tree.
That wasn’t enough.
“Unfortunately, the part of the ball that was showing was just all the white and dimples,” Fowler said. “I couldn’t see any of my markings and so, yeah, couldn’t identify it, so back to the tee.”
Fans did all they could to get the ball to drop, with more than a dozen of them pushing the tree back and forth. It didn’t work.
Fowler feverishly tried to find some markings by grabbing binoculars and steadying them on chief rules official Mark Russell’s left shoulder for a better look. Had Fowler been able to ID the ball, he would have been able to drop from there with a one-stroke penalty.
“I’m with you; I’m on your side, but we’ve got to identify that ball as yours,” Russell told Fowler as they stood in the fairway.
“Can they identify it by a bird?” Fowler quipped.
“There’s nothing I can do unless we can identify it as yours,” Russell responded. “It’s a shame.”
Fowler settled for a golf-cart ride back to the tee.
“Unfortunate,” Fowler said. “I mean, if a ball happens to hit something and go into a hazard, it’s not like you have to go identify the ball inside the hazard or in the water. It’s, ‘Hey, we saw it go right here.’ So, I mean, it was pretty clear that the ball was there, that was where everyone saw it go, heard it go, but not the case with that one.”
He put his third shot in the fairway, landed his approach shot about 25 feet right of the hole and then two-putted for a double.
His trouble was far from over.
Fowler yanked his tee shot at the par-4 seventh into the water left. He dropped there and sailed his third shot past the flag and onto the back of the green. He burned the right edge with a bogey putt and carded another double.
It was the kind of untimely undoing that has prevented Fowler from winning some of golf’s biggest events and left him with the title as the best player without a major.
Fowler needed a birdie or better at his final two holes, but he pushed his tee shot at the par-3 eighth right of the green and made par. He was right of the green in two at the par-5 ninth, but missed a 10-footer for birdie.
“Definitely pleased with how I went out and kind of fought through things,” he said. “We were in a good spot (heading to 6). It would have been nice to either finish there or get one or two more coming in, but just unfortunate timing.”
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