Did Justin Thomas just turn the corner? Rickie Fowler might know
A week after shooting the first-ever 62 in a U.S. Open, holding the 54-hole lead and finishing T5 at Los Angeles Country Club to reassert himself into the major championship conversation for the first time in years, Fowler had another chance for immortality.
This time it was for golf’s magic number: 59.
Much like he tore apart LACC a week ago, making birdie on half of his first 36 holes, Fowler dissected TPC River Highlands, one of the more getable courses on Tour, to the tune of eight birdies and an eagle through 17 holes. He had just a 14-foot chip left on his final hole (the 9th) to shoot the 12th sub-60 round in PGA Tour history.
It didn’t go, but Fowler settled for the lowest round of his career. Perhaps only Fowler knew his resurgent season was coming. Before the start of the Fortinet Championship last fall, he was 186th in the Official World Golf Rankings. He held the 54-hole lead at the Zozo Championship before losing out to Keegan Bradley — who also took the 54-hole lead in Connecticut by one at 21 under.
After his close call at the U.S. Open, he entered this week’s Designated event — which he’s required to play having still finished top 20 in the PIP, despite nearly losing his card last season — at No. 35 in the world.
That’s only 17 spots behind the man he got to watch shoot another low number in front of him Saturday. In fact, Fwoler even gave Justin Thomas part of the credit for his own score.
“In a way, we’re kind of feeding off each other with me playing right behind him,” Fowler told CBS Sports’ Amanda Renner. “It was fun. I know he’s been struggling a little bit as of late, so to see him play well yesterday and then get back on the horse today and get going — that’s when it’s fun is when you can feed off your buddies and get going.”
Just as Fowler’s resurgence hit the spotlight at the U.S. Open, Thomas’ recent struggles may have hit a low point.
Since Thomas won the PGA Championship in May 2022, he’s recorded just three official top 10s. Last week at the U.S. Open, Thomas bottomed out with the worst score of his PGA Tour career in the second round, an 81 that sent him home early, finishing 153rd out of 156 players.
Thomas has played so poorly during the 2022-23 season that he is in jeopardy of missing both the Ryder Cup team and the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the first time since joining the Tour.
After his second round at the U.S. Open, he said he felt as low with his game as he ever had. But in his post-round interview Saturday with Renner, he revealed again he was playing as “the best I’ve played in years” in the days leading up to the Open.
“It just was such a bad week, like I said, I legitimately felt like it was a fluke,” he said later Saturday afternoon. “It just was honestly so bad that it was easier to put behind me. I felt like I was working on the right things in my swing, and like I said, just in such a better headspace this week.”
A drought of more than year-plus without a win for a player to storm out of the gates with 15 in his first eight seasons certainly qualifies as concerning, especially when you start hearing about him being worried about his headspace.
However, if there’s anyone who might know a thing or two about recovering from poor form, it’s Fowler.
Just as Fowler waited around for Xander Schauffele last Thursday after the latter matched his U.S. Open-record 62, Thomas waited around for Fowler to congratulate him on nearly breaking golf’s version of the sound barrier.
The dichatomy of the two friends’ positions in their careers shouldn’t be lost. Fowler is just rounding back into form after a slump. While Thomas may have just found the bottom of his.
On Saturday afternoon they were simply friends who both got hot at the same time. Sunday, they’ll both be chasing Keegan Bradley, entering the final round seven and six shots, respectively, out of the lead. They’re both chasing first wins. First in a year for Thomas and the first in more than four for Fowler.