Something is Holding Rickie Fowler Back From Major Success

May 8, 2016

Rickie Fowler makes for good TV. He sometimes earns his airtime with his play, as when he finished fifth or better in all four majors in 2014. Or at last year’s Players, when he got the trophy and the girl. Other times, he pops up on TV to sell hotel rooms (the old Crowne Plaza spots) or insurance. (We are Farmers, bum ba-dum bum-bum-bum-bum.) In those separated-at-birth Internet amusements, Fowler almost holds his own when lined up against Leonardo DiCaprio. In a current Farmers ad, Fowler appears with the Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons for an impish spot known as “The Romantic Rodent,” in which a mechanical gopher steals an engagement ring and the show. I asked the spot’s director, Craig Gillespie, how Fowler did with Simmons.

“They never actually worked together,” Gillespie said. “Rickie had a conflict on the day of the shooting, so we had to shoot him in front of a blue screen with a stand-in for J.K. But he was a pleasure to work with, and he was game to try anything.”

It’s an interesting comment because Fowler’s playing partners will tell you he’s a pleasure to play with and game to try anything. Fowler changes his ball flight as the hole location and the wind dictate, and he’s not afraid to remove a headcover and attempt some hit-and-pray shot from a gnarly lie with water right and trees left. TV loves it.

He had those four tantalizing majors in 2014, but he has not been a factor in the five majors played since. After going birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie over the last four holes of regulation at the Players and winning in a playoff, Rickie missed the cut in the U.S. Open and was 30th in the British Open and the PGA Championship. He did not take a page from Leo, who went from The Wolf of Wall Street to The Revenant. The greats, in any field, go from strength to strength.

This fall Fowler should have a chance to improve his Ryder Cup record, which stands at 0-3-5. But he’s going to have to make the team first, and his stock is not rising. In January he missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance (that is, Torrey Pines), and last month he missed the cut at Augusta. The Masters is golf’s brightest stage, and the Farmers event, for Fowler, is a significant one. Those were two prime opportunities for him to make a star turn, but he balked.

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Golf’s hard. It is not played by machines, and you don’t get a second take when you flub a line. But Fowler is 27 and single. These days, that’s about as open as the window gets.

Something is holding Fowler back, and it’s not his talent or technique or course management. It’s not because he’s having too much fun off the course. It’s not the hightops. What he lacks is Raymond Floyd’s stare, Nick Faldo’s self-absorption, Vijay Singh’s nasty streak. Watch Fowler with fans and sponsors and other players, in his TV interviews and his acting gigs. You can tell: He likes being liked, and he needs to be liked. Nothing wrong with that. But what Tiger needed was for you to get the hell out of his way now.

Can a killer instinct be developed? Only rarely. Ernie Els didn’t have it, then he did. (Let’s not talk about now.) Megatalents who are social creatures at heart tend to have long careers but sometimes walk away from the table with good meat still on the bone. Fred Couples and Davis Love III had some of that.

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Butch Harmon, who succeeded Fowler’s late boyhood coach, has been helpful to Rickie, tightening his swing and imparting this message: Go after it and get after it. But what the second coach tells a player can only sink in so far. A director can play God with an actor. In “The Romantic Rodent,” Rickie has just two words: “Romantic what?” It’s not much of a line, but he looks great delivering it.