HOYLAKE, England — Rickie Fowler has fond memories of playing in the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. He finished second to Rory McIlroy, but never was really a threat on Sunday.
But when Fowler thinks back to British Opens in the past, he tends to go back one more year to Muirfield and a missed cut that stuck in his craw. On Saturday at the 2013 Open, Fowler hung around and met with instructor Butch Harmon for the first time. He can’t remember whether he got the number of the famed instructor from Phil Mickelson or his then-caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay, but after consulting with then-caddie Joe Skovron he knew it was time to re-build his swing and find a second set of eyes. Fowler’s longtime instructor Barry McDonnell had died in May 2011. Fowler was so broken up that he couldn’t speak at McDonnell’s funeral and he had been working on his swing on his own.
Harmon was at Muirfield that week to do TV commentary for Sky Sports and work with his stable of players, but he found a window of time in the early afternoon to watch Fowler hit balls — that’s how nearly every player-coach relationship starts. Harmon gave him a few drills to help with his back swing and position at the top.
“I wouldn’t say we accomplished a whole lot because I was hitting it terribly but I knew that we had some stuff to work on and this is where we’re starting,” Fowler recalled.
As a matter of fact, Fowler struggled so mightily to find the clubface that he asked Harmon, “Are you trying to make me look bad?”
“I think you’ve done that on your own the last two days,” snapped back Harmon.
Fowler immediately liked the way Harmon was a straight shooter. Despite never winning a major, they had a fruitful relationship with Fowler reaching No. 4 in the world in 2016 and becoming a perennial top-50 player. Not long after Fowler hooked up with Harmon, he learned that McDonnell had told the guys at the driving range where he taught Fowler that he thought Harmon shared his old-school techniques and was the right instructor to work with Fowler when he was gone.
“It was nice to hear Barry’s stamp of approval,” Fowler said.
Fowler remained in Harmon’s stable until 2019 when he retired from traveling to PGA Tour events. In the ensuing years, his game took a turn for the worst. Fowler went 29 consecutive events without recording a top-10 finish and his ranking dropped to 185th. In October, he reunited with Harmon. Golf Channel’s Johnson Wagner recently analyzed Fowler’s swing from the 2021 CJ Cup, when he had a top-10 finish during his slump, and compared it to Fowler’s current technique with the fixes Harmon has made.
“His clubhead was so laid off. It was like underneath his shoulder blade,” Johnson said. “Right now, it is perfectly parallel, clubface is in a great position. This is a major change that he’s implemented in (less than) 12 months.”
As a measure of his improvement, Fowler has rediscovered his old magic and climbed back to No. 22 in the world. He held a share of the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open last month and ended his more than four-year winless drought in Detroit. Fowler calls links golf his favorite golf and is poised to make a run at the British Open a decade after he got his first lesson from Harmon. A win on Sunday at Royal Liverpool would be the biggest thing to happen in these parts since the Beatles. But it takes a different breed to close out a major and Johnson questions if Fowler has “the killer instinct.”
“I don’t think he’s willing to do whatever it takes to beat you,” Wagner said on The Five Clubs podcast. “Even when he won Rocket Mortgage, he made that putt in a playoff and he just kind of stood there with a relieved look. Give me a fist pump, give me some fire.”
But the Champion Golfer of the Year has been a first-time major winner in four of the last six years, and where talented players such as David Duval, Darren Clarke and Henrik Stenson who hadn’t been able to get over the hump were finally able to break through. Fowler could be next – especially now that Harmon is no longer making him look bad, but once again good.