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2023 Rocket Mortgage Classic leaderboard, grades: Rickie Fowler earns long-awaited win No. 6 in playoff

Rickie Fowler was back at some point earlier this season. Possibly after the Zozo Championship in October, where he finished T2. Maybe it was after the Phoenix Open in February, when he finished T10 following a mediocre final day. Or perhaps it was when he led the U.S. Open after 54 holes just two weeks ago at Los Angeles Country Club.

“Rickie’s back” became official on Sunday, however, when he won the Rocket Mortgage Classic in a playoff over Collin Morikawa and Adam Hadwin with a birdie on the first hole of bonus play.

Getting there was a grind, both metaphorically through the last four years of not winning PGA Tour events, and literally; Fowler looked to be kicking away this tournament late in the day after he was the heavy favorite going into the final round.

Following a great start to his day, Fowler stalled over the last few hours of his round, making par on 10 straight holes going to the 72nd. On a day when Morikawa shot 64 and Hadwin had jumped past him, Fowler had to birdie the last hole just to get into the playoff. He got it with one of the more clutch shots you’ll ever see a professional hit.

Then in the playoff, after a flared drive way out to the right, Fowler once again fired at the pin.

He left himself 12 feet for his first win since February 2019 when he took the Phoenix Open, and he made sure there wouldn’t be a 74th hole of the day.

“It’s hard to put it all into words,” Fowler told CBS Sports’ Amanda Renner. “Obviously, a lot of good stuff this year. I’ve been playing some really good golf. I knew it was just a matter of time with how I’ve been playing. I’ve had a couple of tough weekends where I’ve had a chance … but at the end of the day getting to hang with Maya and my wife, winning is great but there’s a lot more to life than that.”

Fowler famously fell outside the top 170 in the world over the last few years and even seemed to flirt with the idea of playing in the LIV Golf league this time 14 months ago. Instead, he doubled down on his swing, returned to old coach, Butch Harmon, and put in the work he needed to become a top-30 golfer in the world once again.

“After a while, Rickie started coming out to Vegas to see me,” Harmon told Golf Digest earlier this year, “and we could both see the path back — even better than before. Golf is a cruel game, and sometimes those bad times, if you can get through them, really help you going forward.”

No, the reward for Fowler at the summit of this mountain is not hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is the gratification that comes with once again excelling in your craft. The U.S. Ryder Cup team, which Fowler will almost certainly be a part of now, is not a bad parting gift, either.

What’s not being discussed is how much is still at stake this season for the now six-time PGA Tour winner. The Open at Royal Liverpool in three weeks is where Fowler almost won in 2014 over Rory McIlroy, and the FedEx Cup Playoffs loom beyond that. Fowler could still accomplish plenty over the rest of 2023, but make no mistake about what the Rocket Mortgage Classic marked on this Sunday in Detroit. Rickie Fowler is now officially officially back and likely not going anywhere anytime soon. Grade: A+

Below are other grades following the 2023 Rocket Mortgage Challenge: 

T2. Collin Morikawa (-24): I said on Saturday that I didn’t really care what happened on Sunday, and that remained true even as Morikawa tried to fight his way to the top of the board. This was the type of week everyone has come to expect from Morikawa — amazing from tee to green, and if the putts fall, he’s going to win the golf tournament (which he nearly did on Sunday). It’s also a bit different than what’s been going on with him recently. In three of his previous six starts coming into this week, he had lost strokes either off the tee or (gasp!) with his iron play. This week portends for what could be a strong closing kick to the summer for somebody who has not fallen off quite as much as everyone thinks. Grade: A-

T40. Ludvig Aberg (-11): My biggest takeaway from Aberg’s nice week is what European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald, who played with Aberg on Thursday and Friday, said about him before the third round.

“He [Donald] told me there have only been a few [players] that he’s played with for the very first time that have the ‘wow’ factor,” relayed Nick Dougherty of Golf Channel. “One of them is Rory. That was back in 2008 at the Dunhill Links.

“Now he says Ludvig Aberg is one of those guys as well,” Dougherty continued. “He said his driver is a huge weapon, he makes the game look effortless. He added that as long as he continues to show form, he will definitely be considered for the [Ryder Cup] team. … This guy is going to be a superstar.”

Aberg is a total menace with driver in hand— he finished third in the field in strokes-gained off the tee — and is going to be a force. His double-bogey-bogey run late on Saturday took him completely out of the golf tournament, but it was the 65-67 start that has folks buying stock (a lot of it) in what seems like an extremely bright future. Grade: A+

MC. Justin Thomas (+1): It’s been a no good, very strange year for the two-time major champion. After a few months of struggle, he seemed to turn the corner last week at the Travelers Championship when he got in the mix on the weekend. However, a 76 in Round 1 at Detroit Golf Club paved the way for his third missed cut in his last four PGA Tour starts.

Clearly, he’s struggling. Whether that struggle is simply physical or mental (or both) remains to be seen. And though the near future — the Open Championship, FedEx Cup Playoffs and Ryder Cup — do not bring about optimism that J.T. can apply a quick fix to whatever besets him at the moment, he remains undeterred in his quest to once again become the best player int he world.

“Definitely saw a lot of great signs last week and played some really, really good golf those last three days,” he said earlier in the week. “I’m just a couple events away from being right there. And a lot of things can happen. The unknown is the fun and bad part about this game, so we’ll see where it takes us.”

What is true, however, is the old adage that nearly every player who has played at the level J.T. has played at has uttered at some point in their careers: Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems. Grade: F

MC. Tony Finau (-1): The potential U.S. Ryder Cup team did not have the greatest week in Detroit. Since winning Mexico earlier in the year, Finau has more missed cuts (2) than top 25s (1). This is a curiosity that can probably be attributed to the ebbs and flows of professional golf. Unlike J.T., Finau has not dropped off the planet from a statistical standpoint. In fact, he’s having one of the best seasons of his career from a strokes-gained perspective.

It was a fun return for the 2022 champion to Detroit — replete with a bobblehead, menu item and meeting with Chris Webber — but unfortunately it ended much (much) earlier this time around for Finau than it did when he touched off back-to-back wins a little under a year ago at this tournament. Grade: F