Despite naysayers, Rickie Fowler comes through in the clutch -- again

Rickie Fowler will move to No. 4 in the world rankings after his victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on Sunday. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Rickie Fowler plays his best golf when the pressure is highest, thriving when the spotlight is directly on him in the heat of battle.

The preceding proclamation probably sounds like a cheap cliché. Or even worse, the kind of thing a writer writes when he doesn't have anything else.

So I understand your skepticism. It's like saying an athlete is "competitive" or "loves to win" -- which is pretty much an apt description for, well, everybody.

Except in this case, it's the truth.

With his victory Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Fowler now owns four worldwide titles in the past nine months, each of which concluded with him proving this truth in grand fashion.

This time it was a chip-in birdie on the penultimate hole that gave him a cushion entering the final par-5. In the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, he played the back nine in 2 under, turning what was a 1-shot deficit before the final round into a 1-shot victory.

At the Scottish Open, he simply played the final four holes in 3 under. That only paled in comparison to his finish at the Players Championship, when he carded an eagle and four birdies in the last six holes of regulation, then added two birdies in four playoff holes to clinch the title.

If those stories don't paint a clear enough picture, try this: Fowler played the collective back-nines of those four tournaments in a combined 10-under. More impressive? In those 36 holes, he made just two bogeys.

Call it the clutch gene or a learned trait, but it's no coincidence. We can safely proclaim that he thrives under pressure.

None of which is to say that Jordan Spieth or Jason Day or Rory McIlroy -- the only three players in the world who will be ranked ahead of Fowler come Monday morning -- aren't similarly clutch. Each of them has won major championships, a fact which alone speaks volumes of their ability to close under pressure.

A related fact -- that Fowler hasn't yet won one -- is the usual cry from critics who still, somehow, doubt his talents.

While Fowler himself is the first to insist that he doesn't belong in a conversation with the so-called modernized "Big Three" because he doesn't have a major, it should be noted that he hasn't exactly flamed out in these tournaments, either. Prior to turning 27 last month, he posted a half-dozen top-10s at majors, including results of fifth or better at each of them two years ago.

Again, it all supports not only what Fowler has accomplished, but what he's building toward. But don't only believe me -- or the stats.

Take it from the caddie who has stood side by side with Fowler since his first PGA Tour start. As they were celebrating on the final green in Abu Dhabi, I was reminded what Joe Skovron told me in the TPC Boston locker room following their last victory four months ago.

"He likes that moment," Skovron said of Fowler's penchant for handling the pressure. "He's never really struggled in that moment. He gets in that moment and he finishes. He just hasn't been in that moment a lot."

The last part of that is rapidly changing, as Fowler -- who won just a single PGA Tour event in his first half-decade as a full-time member -- is now consistently challenging for victories. Since the first of those four latest wins, he also owns five other top-10 finishes around the world.

Much like his fellow elite-level 20-somethings, Fowler owns a keen understanding of the continuous ebb and flow of the public narrative. He spent the formative years of his career being labeled as more style than substance, an allusion to the orange-clad wardrobes and fashion-forward sensibilities that made him stand out amongst his peers.

Even wearing jogging pants and high-top golf shoes, he'll alleviate himself of such criticisms for now. As a certain 14-time major champion was often fond of saying: "Winning takes care of everything."

The win in Abu Dhabi might be a springboard to bigger and better things this year, perhaps his first major championship. Or he might continue to linger somewhere on a level just below Spieth, Day and McIlroy, each of whom has checked off that goal.

We can only know for sure what has already happened -- that Fowler is the type of player who doesn't just enjoy playing with increased pressure. He thrives in it. He plays his best golf when the heat is directly on him.

That sounds like a cliché, the kind of thing we'd write about every elite player. When it comes to Fowler, though, the stats and stories fully support the theory.