ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Rickie Fowler puffed his cheeks and shook his head. What looked like a clear path to the Abu Dhabi Championship title ended up being a squeeze for the American on Sunday.
He needed two moments of inspiration in the final round to seal a one-shot win — and spark more talk about Fowler's place in golf's current elite.
Dressed in his trademark Sunday orange, Fowler rebounded from double bogey at No. 7, which helped trim his lead over a congested pack from four strokes to one, by chipping in from 30 yards for eagle from a bunker at No. 8.
Then, at No. 17, Fowler holed a chip from just off the green for birdie that shook off playing partner Thomas Pieters, the Belgian who emerged from the bunch to chase Fowler all the way down the stretch.
"It was not how it was planned," a smiling Fowler said of the tight finish, "but I came out on top."
Fowler, who held a two-stroke lead after a third-round 65, shot 3-under 69 for 16-under 272. Pieters (67) was runnerup, with fast-finishing Rory McIlroy (68) and Henrik Stenson (67) tied for third.
There was satisfaction for Fowler in claiming his fourth win worldwide in nine months, after victories at the Players Championship, the Scottish Open and the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2015. This win will move him from No. 6 to No. 4 in the rankings, his first spot in the world's top five.
The so-called "Big Three" of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy might need to be enlarged.
"I want to be part of the crew. It would be a pretty good foursome," Fowler, 27, said. "I think I mentioned through the summer at some point … I was a sneaky fourth. We've got to take care of a major and then maybe I can join the crew."
The win was extra special for Fowler, considering Spieth (No. 1), McIlroy (No. 3) and Stenson (No. 5) were in the field, arguably the strongest the European Tour will have this year.
Spieth tied for fifth, five behind Fowler, after 68 and acknowledged that he was "beat up, mentally and physically," having played in South Korea, China, Australia, Bahamas, Hawaii and now Abu Dhabi since October. "I'm very tired," he said. "I'm not 100 percent right."
The championship went down to the wire. Fowler took a two-shot lead over Pieters down the par-5 18th and found a greenside bunker with his approach. Pieters gave himself a putt for eagle, which he missed left by an inch.
"I didn't do much wrong" Sunday, said Pieters, who moved within one shot of Fowler with birdie on No. 13 but only parred his way to the 18th. "Next time maybe some more putts drop, that's it."
It was another near miss for McIlroy, who adds a third place to his four runnerup finishes in Abu Dhabi at what is always his first event each year.
McIlroy started the final round three shots behind Fowler and only came on late, chipping in for birdie on No. 16 and rolling in a 35-foot eagle putt on No. 18.
This win moves Fowler from No. 6 to No. 4 in the World Ranking, his first spot in the top five. The top four: Spieth, Day, McIlroy, Fowler. That's an average age of 25.9, to which the 22-year-old Spieth good-naturedly tweeted of the other three, "Wow they must be old."
PGA: Jason Dufner won the CareerBuilder Challenge with par on the second playoff hole, taking advantage of David Lingmerth's shot off the rocks that bounced into the water. Dufner finished with 2-under 70 on PGA West's TPC Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif., to match Lingmerth at 25-under 263. Lingmerth closed with 65. Dufner, the third-round leader, escaped with par on the island-green 17th after his tee shot bounced into sand between rocks on the hole called Alcatraz. He stayed alive on the first extra hole with an 11-foot par putt after having to lay up on his second shot from near the lip in a right-side bunker.