‘Kind of bittersweet:’ Rickie Fowler inspired after coming up short in Japan
It would probably be a stretch to call Rickie Fowler’s loss at the Zozo Championship a heartbreak.
Yes, this was his best chance to win since his last victory in 2019. Yes, he’s one of the more popular players on the PGA Tour despite falling as far as 185th in the world last month. Yes, he’s largely fallen short of sky-high expectations after turning pro as the world’s No. 1 amateur in 2009.
But a heartbreak this week was not.
Many of us in the United States went to sleep with Fowler holding a one-stroke lead, about to tee off for the final round in Japan. We awoke to another golfer getting his first win this decade, only it was Keegan Bradley who claimed his first title since 2018 by a stroke over Fowler and Andrew Putnam.
Fowler’s day was flat. He was one over through six holes and ended up birding the final hole for an even-par-70 to share second. His final round was three strokes worse than any of his other scores this week. He had more putts and missed more greens Sunday than he did in any of the first three rounds. There was nothing dramatic about the loss itself. He didn’t bring his “A game” on Sunday and Bradley beat him. He owned that.
“Gave it our all, left it all out there. Big congrats to Keegan, he made the putts, I didn’t. He earned it,” he said.
But Fowler has thrown his status quo out the window the past few months after just barely squeaking into the FedEx Cup playoffs. You probably heard he split from longtime caddie Joe Skovron at the end of the regular season, who’s now on the bag of last week’s winner Tom Kim. He’s back working with Butch Harmon and he’s even using a pretty different set of clubs.
Couple his runner-up finish in Japan with his top-10 in the season opener in California and Fowler seems to like where things are headed.
“Kind of bittersweet,” Fowler said. “Obviously wanted to get the job done and I felt very good going into today. Felt, you know, probably as good as you can feel out there. Final round, haven’t been there a whole lot in the last couple years, really just didn’t give myself many opportunities until the end.
“Definitely excited about having a couple good finishes to start the season and a lot of good stuff coming.”
Fowler had a decent start to last season when he finished tied for third at the 2021 CJ Cup. The five-time PGA Tour winner also held the lead after three rounds that week before coming out similarly flat in the final round. His closing 71 left him three strokes behind winner Rory McIlroy. It was his only top-20 finish for the entire season.
On Sunday, Fowler acknowledged in previous years since his last win — after which he was ranked 8th in the Official World Golf Ranking — when he would have a good finish only to revert to poor play afterward. This feels different for Fowler.
“It’s just finally in a position where we’re building momentum and building more confidence,” Fowler said. “I feel like in the last few years there would be times where [I’d] kind of take a step forward and just was never really able to build more momentum than for one week at a time.
“[I’m] in a great spot and finally in a position where things are starting to kind of snowball and head in the right direction, all together.”
Fowler only felt the one thing holding him back on the final day was putting.
“I hit some darn good putts that it was like there was a cover over the hole,” he said. “I’ve been a little off all week … the putts not going in coming down the stretch, it wasn’t me hitting poor putts. I hit my lines and hit great putts, just didn’t break how I saw it, so it is what it is.”
He could have been down after the loss, but he wasn’t, likely because he feels there’s more of this kind of play coming.
Fowler’s opponent Sunday, Keegan Bradley, may have felt similarly to Fowler the last few years. Bradley found himself in contention numerous times after the past two seasons, but could never get the job done, with 10 top-10s over the period to show for it. He contended at the U.S. Open and even led the Wells Fargo Championship through three rounds this past season.
He finally found the winner’s circle this weekend. Fowler’s time could be on the way, too.
“It’s why we play,” he said. “To really put yourself in a position where you have a chance on the back nine, that’s what it all comes down to. Obviously left some out there and I wish it was a different outcome, but good to be back in the position and ready to do that a lot more often.”