What’s the No. 1 thing holding Rickie Fowler back? He thinks he knows. 

Rickie Fowler on Thursday during the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

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He said he didn’t watch, though he did check his phone a few times. He played golf instead, though Rickie Fowler’s round was, shall we say, relaxed. 

“There was no money on the line,” Fowler said. “Just casual round. I think I got a drink for the back nine.”

Through all of the ups and downs, the adjustments and changes, there’s at least one thing you can bank with one of golf’s more popular players: Fowler himself remains steady. And that he was last Sunday, even as both his work schedule for the next month, and another personal low, were in the hands of others.  

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Last week’s Wyndham Championship, as the last event of the PGA Tour’s regular season, was also the last chance to secure a spot among the 125 who move on to the start of the three-week playoff stretch, and Fowler was among those on the “bubble,” then missed the Wyndham cut. If you’re reading this with no idea of the 33-year-old’s struggles over the past few years, you’re probably re-reading that previous sentence. Shoot, even if you are aware of his slide, you’re probably looking at it again. Fowler? Not even good enough for the 125, for a second-straight year? Yeah. 

Then things got even odder. 

As things shook out Sunday — and he was on another golf course — Fowler survived. No. 125, in fact.

And wouldn’t you know it, given new life, Fowler signed for his lowest round in about 10 months, shooting a five-under 65 during Thursday’s first round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the first leg of the playoffs. But Fowler and you know one good round does not make a tournament, nor qualify as a bona fide comeback. Hardly. And the work continues.  

But if you’re a Fowler fan, you should know your man may know what’s holding him back. An exchange after his round is notable.  

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Reporter: “If someone were to ask a very simple question — what’s lacking right now in your game — what would be the answer the last couple months?”

“I mean, it would be nice to hit some a little closer, but that’s not probably the biggest issue,” Fowler said. “One of the biggest issues over the last year or two, I’m just not putting anywhere near what I — I’m used to or I know I can. That does a lot with momentum and confidence and freeing you up from the rest of the game, not feeling like you have to necessarily hit it super close to make birdies. I’ve been driving it really well, and so I think kind of the last thing is seeing a few putts go in is, I think, something that’s really going to free up the rest of the game to kind of start cruising again.”

Reporter: “Do you know why with the putting? Can you identify the cause?”

“Kind of goes all over the place,” Fowler said. “I would say a lot of it is read based, but at that point, when you’re not trusting your reads, speed’s a little off, so there’s plenty of variables in putting. If you’re not starting it online, it doesn’t matter if you have the right read or speed. I would say one of the biggest ones has been getting proper reads and then on top of that, trusting that. So with that, like I said, speed can become a little inconsistent based on trust, but I think stemming from reads.”

A reporter then asked how many putters Fowler has played with this year.

“Into play? Probably five,” Fowler said.

“And how long have you been using your current one?” a reporter asked. 

“The one I played with today, that was its first round,” Fowler said. 

“It was?” a reporter asked. 

“Yeah,” Fowler said. 

“It did well,” the reporter said. 

“No, it did a lot of good stuff,” Fowler said. “It was a new putter that Scotty [Cameron] had just come out with. Drew, one of the reps who was a teammate of mine at Oklahoma State, he just happened to have it out on the putting green on Tuesday. Hit a couple putts with it, everything looked good, felt good. Messed with it a little bit more yesterday and decided to give it a shot. There was a lot of good out there today. Actually, a lot of really good putts. Left a couple short, but other than that, some of it was just a little off on read.”

Fowler has been open in the past about his struggles, and this was no different. He’s right, too, about his putting — during the 2016-17 season, Fowler was No. 1 — No. 1! — on Tour in Strokes Gained: Putting; this campaign, he is a ghastly 179th.

Of course, a new wand — Fowler said it’s a newer version of the Newport Plus — doesn’t actually make the putts; that’s still on the player. But a physical change can sometimes free up mental ones, and this is that; it’s at least part of the reason that Fowler, somewhat surprisingly, also broke up with longtime caddie Joe Skovron ahead of this week.

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“It was more so going into this week not having Joe with me, obviously an amazing partnership over the years, but it was going to be more about me taking ownership and putting more of a workload on myself and more accountability,” Fowler said. 

“I still had plenty of his voice and one-liners and stuff in my head, so he wasn’t on the bag but he was definitely present.”

It’s here where we’ll end things by saying Fowler’s teased with low rounds recently, only to finish somewhere where those ranked 125th usually finish — last October, at the CJ Cup, he followed rounds of 66, 66 and 63 with a 71; a month later, at Mayakoba, he followed a 66 with a 72; in January at the Farmers Insurance, he went 66-76; in May at the Wells Fargo, his scored looked like this: 66-72-74-68. 

Then again, a 65 is what the start of a comeback looks like, too. 

“Got some good work in with [swing coach John] Tillery the last couple days,” Fowler said. “I felt like I got some good stuff in and in a way kind of coming in, nothing to lose. Being 125, obviously need to play well to just make it to next week, but it would be a big bonus if we can do that and move on. Kind of leave it all out there, see what happens.”

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Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at nick.piastowski@golf.com.