Rickie Fowler’s resurgence? It’s been coming for a while
LOS ANGELES — Eight years ago, the USGA announced it would bring the 2023 U.S. Open to Los Angeles. At the time, local kid Max Homa was ranked No. 409 in the world. Another LA phenom, Collin Morikawa, had just graduated high school. The best player going from Southern California? It was Rickie Fowler. He was also the best player without a major championship.
It’s a qualifier that helps and hurts the psyche, the most popular backhanded compliment in sport. The best of those who haven’t done the thing everyone wants to do. Best of the best who haven’t been the best. But Fowler was 26 years old, ranked fifth in the world and fresh off a win at the Players Championship. If you looked into your crystal ball and saw a 10-birdie, record-breaking 62 next to Fowler’s name, you’d say what Homa did when that became a reality Thursday: “Impressed, not surprised.”
But there’s a reason for that big “R” word atop this article: Resurgence. The last eight years have been a rollercoaster of sorts for Fowler. Plenty of peaks, and one prolonged valley that he called “long and tough. A lot longer being in that situation than you’d ever want to.”
The best players in the world are like four-legged tables. When every facet is working, they stand up straight, strong and sturdy. When one of those legs is off, the game is still functional, because the other legs make up for it. But when two or three of those legs shake, this table is not fit for dining. That’s what happened to Fowler.
At his best, he was a four-legged table. He drove it well, he iron-ed it well, his short game was solid and his putting was top-grade. But in 2021, his short game began to falter. In 2022, it flipped. His driving, irons and famously reliable putting all dropped, leaving a one-legged table. Of course, that’s all physical. Give the table a mind and ask it how it feels with just one leg. Winning a major goes out the door. Fowler became desperate for invites into majors. (Twelve months ago he spent Thursday of the U.S. Open at Brookline as the first alternate, never gaining entry into the field.)
Rock bottom came about 10 months ago, in the August-September range of 2022. He squeaked into the FedEx Cup Playoffs only on the back of the dozens of players who left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf. When his season ended that week, it marked a season of just three top 25 finishes. It was time for a change, the first drastic move of his career.
Fowler enlisted a new caddie, Ricky Romano, ending a 13-year stretch with Joe Skovron. “It was a team decision,” Fowler said, explaining that he and Skovron decided to “go different ways.” Fowler also returned to the office of Butch Harmon, the game’s greatest swing coach. There was a lot of comfort there.
“I feel like he’s a very good golf and life coach,” Fowler said. “Kind of separate from being kind of a swing coach. He can be technical and mechanical if needed, but he understands the playing and the mental side and what it takes to — if you maybe a little off, finding one thing or just telling you just something to give you a little confidence to go out there and just go play golf and keep it simple. That’s been one of the big things — me getting back to playing golf.”
A simpler approach has brought brilliant results. Fowler finished in the top 10 twice in his first month back with Harmon. He talked about feeling confident once again. “Things are starting to snowball,” he said right before the Tour season took its holiday break last winter.
When the PGA Tour resumed, comfort continued. He made every cut in January, February and March, leaving an impression on his closet contemporaries. “I can just tell from playing practice rounds with him or playing with him at home, he’s just, he’s a different person,” Justin Thomas said in March. “He’s got a lot more swagger, a lot more confidence. His expectations are different. It’s funny just what a couple tournaments or maybe one particular shot or week here and there will do.”
Fowler has hovered in the realm of contention over much of the last few months, occasionally flashing onto the leaderboards but never nabbing a win. The result of that is a world ranking of 45, criminally low for where his skillset is at the moment. His last eight events feature seven top 20s and just one missed cut. Analytics site DataGolf ranks him 13th in the world.
All of that brings us to Thursday’s first quarter. That’s all we’ve got so far — the first 25 percent of this U.S. Open. Fowler is taking a break in the locker room. His opening round is undoubtedly the best he’s scored in many, many moons. By the end of the day he gained about 10 shots on the field average, a total matched by just one player, Xander Schauffele. It was clinical stuff. It reminds him of those good times eight years ago.
“I would say we’re starting to get maybe as close as we’ve ever been to where I was through kind of that 14, 15 area,” Fowler said Thursday.
Don’t be shocked if it continues.