PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — On the practice range Monday of the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, one of golf’s most popular figures is adjusting his cell phone on a tripod, making sure it’s perfectly placed to properly video the entire swing.
Like the rest of his game, Rickie Fowler is constantly tinkering, always looking for ways to rekindle the magic that delivered a magnificent closing stretch in capturing the 2015 Players Championship.
It eventually propelled him to a career-high No. 4 world ranking, much to the approval of an adoring fan base. That’s been especially true for the younger generation, which has long been drawn to the California kid with a welcoming demeanor while rocking those colorful Puma hats.
Unfortunately, Fowler has been on sort of a hiatus from golf’s spotlight in recent years. Given this sport’s fickle nature, the five-time PGA Tour winner saw his game take a significant dive. As his world ranking tumbled to No. 185 as recently as September, he naturally struggled to regain his confidence.
Fowler, who once finished top five in all four majors in 2014, failed to qualify for three of them last year. Since his memorable victory at the Players, he has missed three cuts in his last five appearances.
During Thursday’s first round of the 2023 Players Championship, Fowler shot an even-par 72.
It’s been a prodigious fall for the Oklahoma State product, but the good news is Fowler appears to be on a legitimate comeback trail. He’s showing signs of emerging from golf darkness, starting with a runner-up finish in October at the ZOZO Championship in Japan, losing by one shot to Keegan Bradley.
He strung together three consecutive top-20 finishes this year before finishing tied for 31st last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, so there’s reason to believe Fowler isn’t far off from collecting a winner’s paycheck.
“Yeah, to have a chance to be back in the winner’s circle, it’d be huge,” Fowler said. “I know there’d be a lot of people that would be excited and thrilled for me because they’ve been on the ride with me the whole time.”
Riding some rough waves
For the love of people who will always cherish the memory of Arnold Palmer, the gold standard of golf ambassadors, Fowler back hoisting any tournament trophy would be a good thing. Imagine the social media uproar and heartwarming response if that happened.
“Rickie moves the needle,” said 2019 U.S. Open champion and fellow Puma pitchman Gary Woodland, who often plays with Fowler as both have residences in Palm Beach County. “Obviously, he hasn’t had his best stuff the last couple years, but Rickie still gets crowds because he just has good energy around him. He’s always a positive guy and he makes time for the fans, man. He does things the right way.
“People love him. They’re drawn to him. The way he’s playing lately, getting back to those Ryder Cups, Presidents Cups and contending in major championships, I don’t think it’s too far away.”
In hopes of getting there, Fowler was forced to make some emotionally tough choices. He parted ways with longtime caddie Joe Skovron, a childhood friend dating back to their days in Murrieta, Ca., and his loper is now Ricky Romano. He also severed ties with swing instructor John Tillery to return to his previous coach Butch Harmon.
Those were gut-wrenching moves for Fowler, who credits Skovron and Tillery for being key supporters — the critical one being his wife, Allison Stokes — in helping him persevere mentally through his prolonged slump.
“It was obviously tough, but I felt like I did a great job through it all,” Fowler said. “Really, golf was the only thing that wasn’t in a good spot. Everything else besides that — personal life, family life — everything was great. I had all that to lean on and enjoy life while trying to battle through the golf stuff. A lot of it is just having good perspective.
“Golf isn’t everything. It’s a big part of my life and the better golf is, it definitely helps, but it’s not everything. I felt like I had great perspective though it all, having a great support system.”
Before making eight of nine cuts this season, Fowler went through a brutal two-year stretch of missing 17 cuts and having only two top-10 finishes. His last victory at the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open feels like an eternity ago.
Getting back on track
As with most golfers, the erosion of confidence — leading to him questioning his swing and strokes gained from tee to green diminishing — left Fowler struggling to find the happy place he had with his marriage and birth of his first child, daughter Maya, in November 2021.
But Fowler comes to the Players feeling emboldened by his recent success, saying this about how close he is to winning: “Oh, very close. How close I knew was being back to playing some better golf, it’s all a very fine line. I’ve got to drive it better than I have been, but it’s nice to see a lot of things improving and getting better. It’s kind of working from the green back.”
His closest friends on Tour, notably Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, both see Fowler having a little more hop in his step.
“I can just tell from playing practice rounds with him or playing at home [in Jupiter], he’s just a different person,” said Thomas. “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.”
Spieth feels a big breakthrough with Fowler could be imminent, but didn’t put a specific timetable on it.
“A lot of it has to do with confidence, but you can’t fake it until you make it,” said Spieth. “That just doesn’t work in this game. That’s the way I feel. You have to see and feel like you’re getting on track, to then believe and really want to continue to push it. Once you do that, then you start getting a couple results and all of a sudden, it could just be a landslide.
“He could win multiple times. I think it’s close to that happening. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was this week, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a couple of months from now.”
Good vibes for Stadium Course
You can bet the powers-that-be at the PGA Tour would be doing cartwheels if Fowler took a step back in time and won their signature event again.
It wouldn’t be the same uproar as if Tiger did it and broke Sam Snead’s all-time record 82 Tour wins. Still, Fowler back in the winner’s circle where he pulled off a rally for the ages to win eight years ago would resonate in the golf world.
Eight years ago, he played his final six holes, including the playoff duel with Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner, in 6-under-par. He birdied the fabled No. 17 island hole three times in a span of 2 hours and 27 minutes, a remarkable feat considering Fowler needed them to either get into a playoff, stay tied or win the biggest tournament of his life.
Coming back to the Players always gives Fowler a little extra juice, saying: “This is obviously a special place. I know we can play well around here and looking forward to giving ourselves a chance.”
If he can build any kind of momentum, another lift will surely come from his fans pining for a Fowler resurgence. A lot of them will be kids that the 34-year-old veteran has found a special connection with since he turned pro after the 2009 Walker Cup.
“That’s not something I came out here necessarily to do,” said Fowler. “The following and the fans, that just came naturally, I guess. It wasn’t like I was out recruiting people to be my fan or anything like that. It’s an honor to be in a position where I get to be a role model because I remember people that I looked up to growing up.
“So trying to be someone that’s a positive role model, someone parents want their kids to look up to or watch and pull for, that’s a privilege.”
More than ever, golf needs as big a collection of personable stars to fill the obvious void. Tiger is still around, not here at the Players, but who knows how much longer he plays or if he can get back to being a contender. Phil Mickelson opted to go to the dark side, sucked in by the Brinks truck delivered to him by LIV from its Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund.
So the PGA Tour’s crown jewel event could use a feel-good story this week, if nothing else to put a cork on all the talk of LIV’s ripple effects, including the defection of Cam Smith that prohibits the Players champion from defending his title.
The message from passionate supporters of Fowler for this week at the Players and beyond should be something like this:
“Come back, Rickie. All the way back to the best version of yourself.”
Golf has to at least acknowledge this — the game is better with Rickie Yutaka Fowler consistently stalking leaderboards.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540