Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, in second stage of careers, both searching for meaningful major
LOS ANGELES — Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy arrived in the practice area at Los Angeles Country Club at the same time on Saturday — 2:50 p.m. sharp, with 36 holes left in the 123rd U.S. Open.
The past two days at 2:50, this place was packed. Now, most of those guys were gone. Jon Rahm and Francesco Molinari made post-round swings down at the far end, but they are mostly out of this tournament. Not so much for Rickie and Rory — which kind of sounds like a boy band — who are both in the second stage of their careers and both very much in the running at one of the biggest golf tournaments on earth. Problem is, only one can win it.
How did we get here? The answer is not that simple.
First, here’s what you need to know: Fowler and Wyndham Clark lead the 2023 U.S. Open after 54 holes, tied at 10 under. McIlroy is just one back, at nine under, and the next closest competitor is Scottie Scheffler at seven under. (That’s a good leaderboard, folks.)
One of those guys, or maybe one of the other guys we didn’t mention, is going to win, and an educated guess is it might be McIlroy or Fowler. It’s interesting those two are in this position. Their lives are so similar, but their careers have been so different.
Both are 34 — Fowler is five months older — and both turned pro around the same time, McIlroy in 2007 and Fowler in 2009. Both joined the PGA Tour in 2010 and they both won their first PGA Tour events on the same course, Quail Hollow Club. McIlroy’s came in 2010, Fowler’s in 2012.
McIlroy burst onto the scene with curly, black locks, a booming driver and a knack for winning golf tournaments, cruising to an eight-shot win at the 2011 U.S. Open at just 22 years old. Fowler had 11 top 10s his first two seasons, but his jump came in 2012, when he was runner-up at the Players and won the Wells Fargo the next week. He sported movie-star good looks, flowing hair and a colorful wardrobe accented by flat-brimmed hats.
He was a star. So was McIlroy. Their popularity grew. So did their bank accounts, their commercials, their sponsors and their brands. But here’s where the disparities began. McIlroy kept winning. And winning and winning and winning. Fowler didn’t.
In July 2014, McIlroy won the Open Championship, with Fowler two strokes back in a tie for second. A month later, McIlroy won the PGA Championship for his ninth PGA Tour victory. Fowler? He was two back, in third. Later that year McIlroy beat Fowler 5 and 4 in singles play at the Ryder Cup.
McIlroy has added pages to his resume since then, now with 23 career PGA Tour victories. Fowler has five.
“I would say Rory has got me beat in most of the areas for the most part,” Fowler said Saturday night, smiling. “He’s had a lot of success and he’s been fun to watch. … I feel like it’s been more him pushing me than me pushing him type of thing, with him having more wins and actually has majors. But to me, I always enjoy having buddies that we can go toe-to-toe with.”
But back to the similarities; there are more. McIlroy and Fowler are friends. Good friends. Their friends are friends. They got married two years apart. They both moved from home — far away from home — and settled in Jupiter, Fla. They both became dads. Their daughters were born 15 months apart. They belong to the same golf clubs. They are both rich. They are both modest. They are both likable.
And they are both, like you could not even imagine, trying like hell to win a major championship this week.
McIlroy and Fowler, like a bunch of the guys here, will never really need the money they pocket this week. Golf is their job and it pays well and they are good at it, but at this point it’s about legacy and trophies and winning tournaments and, above all else, the four majors.
For McIlroy, it was easy. The wins came easy. He won four times in his first 15 major starts. No player has more top-10 finishes in majors in the last eight years than McIlroy (18), but somehow none of those are wins. Strong finishes pay bills but McIlroy doesn’t need money to keep the lights on. He wants majors, and these past several years they have been elusive as ever.
His latest major heartbreak came at last year’s Open Championship, when he held the 54-hole lead but lost to Cameron Smith. McIlroy put on a brave face for the media — “I’ll be OK; at the end of the day, it’s not life or death,” he said — but buried his head into his wife’s shoulder a few minutes later as they sped out of the interview area on a golf cart.
“No one wants to win another major — no one wants me to win another major more than I do,” McIlroy said on Friday. “The desire is obviously there.”
Fowler, on the other hand, has had different struggles. He’s won, sure, but not nearly as much as his celebrity status would have you believe. An anonymous players’ poll published in Sports Illustrated in 2015 called Fowler, then with just one win, the most overrated player on Tour. He won the Players Championship that week, still the biggest win of his career. He’s won three times since, but nothing since 2019.
While McIlroy has struggled to close majors, Fowler has struggled to keep his Tour card.
In 2020-21, he fell to 134th in the FedEx Cup standings, and he hasn’t played in a Masters since 2020. He hasn’t played in a U.S. Open since then either, despite competing in sectional qualifiers. He changed caddies (from Joe Skovron to Ricky Romano) and swing coaches (from John Tillery back to Butch Harmon).
Slowly, he’s gotten better. He’s gotten more consistent, more confident. The results have followed. He has six top 10s this year, which is more than he had in the past three years combined.
“I sure hope everyone can relate to struggles, because everyone deals with them,” Fowler said Friday. “No one’s perfect. I think you’d be lying if you haven’t been through a tough time, especially if you play golf.”
On Sunday, McIlroy played in the penultimate pairing ahead of Fowler, who took the outright lead when he parred 12 and Clark bogeyed it. McIlroy was hanging around, playing good-not-great golf, but hanging around is sometimes all you have to do at U.S. Opens.
Which brings us to our final similarity: Everyone here loves them.
“Let’s go, Rickie!” a fan shouted on 12. “He’s back, baby!”
On 14, McIlroy bobbed down the fairway as fans from the hospitality tents cheered him on. They roared when he took a wood out of his bag, deciding to go for the green instead of laying up, and the grandstands by the green erupted for one of the loudest ovations of the day when he nearly chipped in for eagle from the nearby 15th tee box.
After McIlroy birdied 14 to get within two of Fowler, he shuffled over to the 15th tee for the short par-3. About 150 yards away, Fowler played in from the 14th fairway, landing his ball with a thud. The same grandstand came alive once again as his ball rolled out to six feet. McIlroy had to wait for them to calm before he could continue.
You can’t say this about many golfers, but McIlroy and Fowler are superstars (Fowler’s win total be damned). They are both 18 good holes away from a victory, one that will either add to a legacy or justify a career. Both would silence the doubters.
Their lives are just fine. They don’t need this win, but they certainly crave it. They’ll think about it tonight when their eyes close. For these guys a win is validation. A long time coming. Come Sunday, one of them might just win a U.S. Open.
“We have a chance tomorrow,” Fowler said. “After going through the last few years, I’m not scared to fail.”