LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | Leaning against a metal railing beside the practice putting green at Torrey Pines last week, Rickie Fowler paused a conversation to say hello to Steve Stricker as the United States Ryder Cup captain walked past.
Fowler was being friendly, a nod of acknowledgement in the new golf year. Stricker is the man charged with winning the Ryder Cup back for the Americans and, at the moment, Fowler doesn’t figure prominently into those plans.
He knows that.
Just like Fowler knows he has fallen out of the top 60 in the world rankings and is, at this point, not qualified to play in the Masters, U.S. Open or PGA Championship this year.
Now 32 and in his 12th year on the PGA Tour, Fowler isn’t so much at a crossroads as he is in a place of transition. He’s still Rickie Fowler, as marketable as any player in golf with his movie-star looks and charm, but he has become a stranger to leaderboards.
Fowler’s last top-10 finish – a T10 – came a year ago at the American Express in the Southern California desert. Feel free to draw a geographic parallel to Fowler’s recent patience-testing challenges.
“It’s been an uphill battle but we’re ultimately looking to take that step back and end up ahead of where we were before,” Fowler said, the Pacific Ocean shimmering in the distance behind him.
“It’s been a long road but what doesn’t kill you ultimately makes you stronger.”
There are few things harder in professional golf than being competitive while working through a swing change. It’s common to become a prisoner to mechanics, the mind cluttered with instantaneous checklists to be implemented on every swing.
It’s the sometimes-crippling battle between playing golf and playing golf swing.
Fowler, who has always had a natural rhythm to his flat swing, believes he’s working his way through that no-man’s land. There have been enough good days to reassure him.
It has been a work in progress since the five-time PGA Tour winner began working with swing coach John Tillery in late 2019. A long-time disciple of Butch Harmon, Fowler transitioned to son Claude Harmon III for a time after Butch quit traveling before committing to Tillery, who also works with Kevin Kisner, among others.
In simple terms, Fowler and Tillery are working on keeping the club more in front of Fowler’s body, improving his sequencing. He’s not trying to get his hands higher at the top of his swing. He’s chasing consistency.
Fowler entered the Farmers Insurance Open ranked 178th in strokes gained approaching the green this season and 162nd in strokes gained putting, proof the process is far from complete.
“Just keep plugging away,” Fowler said. “It’s going to get better but it’s tough when you’re out here trying to make changes playing against the best players in the world. Being just a little off can make you look like you’re far from where you need to be but it’s such a fine line out here.”
“I’m not out here to finish mid-pack and try to make cuts.” – Rickie Fowler
Fowler has adopted small goals. It starts with making cuts. After finishing T53 at Torrey Pines, he’s made six of 10 cuts since the tour restarted last June. Fowler missed just six cuts in 41 tour starts spanning the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, winning once and finishing second four times.
When he’s been good – Fowler started the final round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in third place last summer – he’s struggled to push it through the finish line (he shot 73 that Sunday in Memphis, Tennessee, when his driver let him down).
Rory McIlroy understands the challenge Fowler faces. Working through any small swing tweak, McIlroy tries to bury himself in technical work on the range and then close off those thoughts when he’s on the course. It’s easier said than done.
“It’s very hard to score and do the right things out on the course when you’re constantly just thinking about your technique, because technique doesn’t matter out there,” McIlroy said. “That’s not what the game’s about. The game is about getting it up and down and managing it and scoring.”
Harry Higgs is in just his second full year on the PGA Tour but he’s played enough golf to understand what Fowler is working through.
“Every one of us is at our best when you stand behind the ball and visualize the shot and then it almost becomes like second nature,” Higgs said. “You walk in there. You don’t think. You just do it.
“That’s a hard place to get to especially when you feel you need to work on something form-wise.”
Fowler has a decade of experience on Higgs. He’s got wins in the Players Championship and at a FedEx Cup playoff event among those five PGA Tour titles, and he has banked millions on the course and millions more through his endorsement deals. His appeal reaches beyond golf and for good reason – there’s a genuine quality to Fowler that defines him more than the flat-billed hats and his hair stylings.
He’s never been the best player in the game but he’s been one of the best of an exceptional generation. That 2015 Players victory still sparkles. There’s an argument to be made that Fowler should have won more times but he’s not alone in that discussion.
Fowler knows he’s on the outside looking in at the majors and the Ryder Cup this year.
“I’m not out here to finish mid-pack and try to make cuts,” Fowler said.
“Yeah, I want to be at Augusta but I need to keep taking care of small goals, one step at a time. I still know I can go out and tee it up with the best of them.”
Fowler also knows he has to prove it.
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