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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There had only been four seasons in the history of major championship golf like the one Rickie Fowler capped off in near-darkness on the 18th green at Valhalla Golf Club.
The two men who posted the previous four are Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. That's the kind of company every golfer aspires to. Both finished in the top five at the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship: Nicklaus in 1971 and 1973, and Woods in 2000 and 2005. Each came away with at least one trophy to show for the effort.
Fowler was the first to come that close in all four — he was a combined 32 under — and leave empty-handed every time.
He didn't need any time to name the emotion he felt most sharply.
"Right now," Fowler said, "the sting. I really felt like I could win this one."
Someday Fowler will look back on this PGA Championship — on the entire 2014 campaign, in fact — with pride, too. Just not any day soon. Gracious as he and playing partner Phil Mickelson were about the rain-delayed, madcap finish, it may leave him wondering what might have been. It resembled nothing so much as four pals going off to play in twosomes and mashing up on the final two holes so everybody gets in before the sun goes down.
Except this was a major championship. And it means the 25-year-old Fowler, a rising star finally gaining notice for his game as well as his outrageously colorful wardrobe, is still without a defining win.
"In a way, we never got out of rhythm as far as hitting the golf shots. I don't think it really changes it much. We were allowing them to hit the tee shots," Fowler paused, "and then weren't expecting the approach shots to come."
There's the rub.
Take nothing away from eventual winner Rory McIlroy, who was coming off a win at Firestone last weekend and the British Open last month. His birdie at Valhalla's 17th hole effectively decided it fair and square. The 25-year-old Northern Irishman started the day leading by a shot and held the same margin, at 16 under, at the end of a day in which five players handed around the lead like a game of hot potato.
McIlroy's partner in the final group, a majors novice name Bernd Wiesberger of Austria, wasn't a factor from the start. Fowler and Mickelson, who teed off just ahead of them, stayed in the thick of things until slipping back late. So did Henrik Stenson, with whom Fowler wound up tying for third.
Fowler was asked which shot he wanted back most. He didn't need to think too hard about that answer, either.
"The 9-iron on 17 out of the fairway," he said. "I had a good number to the left pin (153 yards) and just didn't catch it clean. ... I make birdie there and have a chance to make a 3 or 4 at the last, and it's a different story.
"That," he said finally, "was kind of not the best swing at the wrong time."
You might say the same about the decision by whichever PGA tournament official gave the green light to McIlroy and Wiesberger to play their approach shots as Fowler and Mickelson were forced to stand off to the side of the green. Neither Fowler nor Mickelson would say anything about that, but the decision was theirs to make, and instead it was taken out of their hands.
PGA of America official Kerry Haigh said afterward "I heard there were some questions on that." He then claimed there was an agreement worked out among both groups of players, but added "I wasn't there."
"It's not a big deal, either way," Mickelson said afterward. "They have a chance to finish and it was no big deal."
Fowler went out of his way a second time to make that point.
"Obviously, Rory played great this week, and he's been a deserving champion the last three tournaments," Fowler said. "He playing quite good right now. Best player in the world hands down.
"We'll see,' Fowler added, a sly smile creasing his lips, "if we can sneak one away from him at some point."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and follow him at www.twitter.com/JimLitke