By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Rickie Fowler's stunning victory at the $10 million Players Championship was unquestionably the perfect riposte to any criticism of his perceived inability to close out tournament wins.
Much more significantly, through, his thrilling playoff win after four extra holes at the TPC Sawgrass thrust his name back into the conversation about the players most likely to dominate the game at the highest level over the next decade.
Fowler has been bracketed with Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day as golf's most exciting 'young guns' but doubts had surfaced after he started this year with a solitary career win on the PGA Tour despite several close calls along the way.
An anonymous player poll conducted by Sports Illustrated revealed last week that the young American and England's Ian Poulter were the two most overrated golfers on the U.S. circuit.
Regardless of the survey's merits, Fowler used the results as strong motivation as he stormed to the top of the Players Championship leaderboard with an eagle-birdie-birdie finish in regulation before sealing victory in the playoff.
"Given the fact that ... Rickie Fowler, by some of his peers, anonymously was called out as being overrated, I cannot remember a more 'in-your face' victory in any other endeavor, in any other sport," said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee.
After earning the winner's cheque for $1.8 million at the unofficial "fifth major" by adding a second PGA Tour title to his career resume, Fowler readily admitted that the player poll had given him timely motivation.
"I laughed at the poll, but if there was any question, I think this right here answers anything you need to know," the 26-year-old told reporters.
"I was always looked at as only having one win on tour, and I always felt that I needed to put myself in position to win more often, and I did that last year," said Fowler, who claimed his maiden PGA Tour win at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship.
"I wasn't able to end up as the last guy standing then but it feels good to be back in that position, and I'm hoping to be back in the same position more often."
FRUITS OF HARD WORK
Last year, Fowler became only the third player after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to finish in the top five at all four majors in the same season, the result of hard work and improved ball-striking in association with his swing coach Butch Harmon.
"This 'overrated' thing that came out ... it motivated him," Harmon told Golf Channel. "You've got to hand it to him. He just keeps fighting. That's what I love about this kid. He's got no quit in him."
Fowler climbed to ninth in the world rankings following his victory at the TPC Sawgrass, and Harmon expects his pupil to now work even harder at his game as he strives for greater consistency in golf's big events and many more tournament wins.
"You've got to put in more time and you've got to work harder at it because everybody that's trying to beat you is working that hard," Harmon said of Fowler who tied for second last year at both the U.S. Open and British Open.
"He's dedicated. The fact that he'd only won one time (before last week) really bothered him because he knows how good he is. The rest of the world knows how good he is now, and now we have to keep validating that and keep winning."
Expect Fowler, world number one McIlroy, Masters champion Spieth and emerging Japanese talent Hideki Matsuyama -- as long as they all remain fit -- to be regular contenders at the majors for at least the next decade.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)