Rickie Fowler is trying to find pieces of the past while staring at an uncertain future

Rickie Fowler is trying to find pieces of the past while staring at an uncertain future

TULSA, Okla. — Rickie Fowler does not offer many windows into his psyche.

It has always been his greatest strength, particularly away from the golf course. He is measured, polite and never controversial — a marketing executive’s dream — which is one reason he’s been such a ubiquitous commercial presence in our lives for nearly a decade. He has been good at golf, certainly, but no one in the game has ever been better at building up his popularity while at the same time presenting a friendly blank canvas to the world.

There are times, though, when he offers just a sliver of an opening. Monday of PGA Championship week at Southern Hills was one of those rare times. He said that of late, he’s been working with someone on the mental side of his game, just trying to accept negative thoughts as they come, then flush them out before he stands over the ball. He didn’t want to name the person, however.

“I don’t know if I want to throw names out there or not,” Fowler said. “I won’t mention names yet.”

It’s no secret Fowler has been struggling the past few years. Once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, he’s fallen to 146th in the Official World Golf Rankings. In nine starts in 2022, he’s missed the cut five times. It’s been more than three years since he won a tournament. He is in the field this week because he finished T-8 at the 2021 PGA Championship, but is in danger of missing the next two majors without a dramatic rise this summer.

“Going through it, it’s never fun,” Fowler said. “I’ve actually enjoyed it, as much as it sucked. I’ve definitely found myself — not that I ever fell out of love with the game or anything like that — but I’ve embraced the grind and the aspect of just taking every day and going out and enjoying it, even though we have been in tough spots.”

Even before this stretch of disappointing results, Fowler was a bit of an enigma within the game. Although he didn’t win at the same clip as some of his peers (five times in the past decade), he had an undeniable allure with fans, both young and old. You could scarcely watch golf on television without being bombarded with clips of him selling insurance or mortgages. He was selected for featured groups on PGA Tour Live so frequently, other players on Tour started joking that it should be renamed Rickie Tour Live.

But the jokes — while frequent — never felt driven by resentment or jealousy, in part because Fowler has always been eager to celebrate the success of his peers, frequently waiting around the 18th green to congratulate someone who won. Long before a TV show like “Ted Lasso” made acts of kindness seem cool again (instead of corny), Fowler was out there hugging people for capturing trophies, even ones he wanted badly.

“There have been plenty of times where I’ve finished and signed my card, and that’s all I can do,” Fowler said. “A friend wins and it’s cool to see and celebrate that together. At the same time, it’s been awesome to have friends be there for me. That’s kind of going back to the competing with your friend and buddies. To me, there’s no better feeling than when you know you’ve beaten your buddies and you kind of have the bragging rights and you accept that when your buddies beat you. You’re like, ‘You got me this week. Let’s go battle it out next week.'”

Even if Fowler never returns to the form he showed in 2014, when he finished in the top 5 in all four majors (something only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods had previously done), he believes the key to finding it again might lie in a visit from The Ghosts of Swings Past. When Fowler came on Tour, he had one of the flattest backswings in golf, a move that generated a lot of power but sometimes didn’t hold up the way under pressure he wanted. Over the years, he made some dramatic changes working with Butch Harmon — and had a lot of success. But the past few years, with Harmon no longer teaching full time, he’s been revisiting some elements of his old swing with coach John Tillery.

“There’s a reason that swings that worked that may have had some positions that looked unorthodox, or against vanilla, have had success,” Tillery said. “Obviously, guys want to make their motion as clean and repeatable as possible, but you don’t want to overlook or sacrifice the DNA that made it work in the process. My job is to help him navigate that process of what he already knows how to do.”

His current focus? Get his back to the target as quickly as he can so that his arms can’t outrace his body when he comes back to the ball.

“There’s been a lot of trying to get where the body or the club was working properly or well in certain areas, even back to … even though my swing was kind of unorthodox, but through college golf and my first few years on Tour, my body was working a lot better than I would say it was three or four years ago,” Fowler said. “So, piecing together a few different things from different times, getting everything kind of working together. It’s been a long road.”

There is still a question, and considerable speculation, of which tour Fowler will be showcasing whatever progress he’s made. Though he has not been one of the biggest names rumored to be interested in joining the LIV Golf tour, Fowler did say on Monday he hasn’t made up his mind. He sounded, in fact, like someone very much open to the idea.

“To be straightforward with you guys, I haven’t necessarily made a decision one way or the other,” Fowler said. “I’ve mentioned in the past … do I currently think that the PGA Tour is the best place to play? I do. Do I think it can be better? Yes. I’ve always looked at competition being a good thing. It’s the driving force of our game. You know, being able to have games with guys at home, that’s how I always grew up is competing. I think competition ultimately makes people better, whether it’s business or sport. So it’s interesting, that’s for sure.”

Five years ago, the threat of potentially losing Fowler to a rival golf league would have been a disastrous development for the future of the PGA Tour. These days, with the emergence of young stars like Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa (plus the reemergence of Jordan Spieth), Tour executives would likely lose less sleep over it. But on some level, it would still feel like a seismic event in the world of golf. Fowler once seemed like he could be the magnet who drew young eyeballs to the PGA Tour, particularly ones who weren’t around for Tiger Woods’ prime. His departure would do a lot more for the long-term viability of LIV Golf than some of the names bandied about, most of them players who are well past their prime.

The PGA Tour has made it clear it will not grant releases to play in the LIV Tour events, and that any player who went anyway would be subject to a lifetime ban, something that is likely to be challenged in court. Fowler said it would be nice to know whether a ban was truly enforceable, but for some players, the consequences may not matter. They’re going regardless. He, as of now, is still exploring his options.

“Are we independent contractors or not?” Fowler said. “I feel like there needs to be some clarity between if you’re an independent contractor or are you basically an employee.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Fowler didn’t have to consider such weighty matters, when it felt he was the future of the PGA Tour and it was only a matter of time before he won his first major. His future seemed limitless.

It still could be, at least in theory. Fowler insists he’s never lost his hunger for the game, even at his lowest points. He is always itching to tee it up, and has never believed he would benefit from putting the clubs away for weeks at a time.

“I have to work fast on the range, man,” Tillery said. “He’s always ready to get to the tee.”

Taking ownership of his swing, relying more on instinct than technical thoughts, is part of his next evolution.

“I feel like there’s a lot of good things here coming shortly,” Fowler said.

Maybe returning to the past will help light the way forward.

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