The conversation lasted about five minutes, but Butch Harmon heard everything he needed to know in the first five seconds.
“He said, ‘I want to be known more for my golf than my clothes and my hat. I want to contend in majors,’” Harmon said of the fateful phone call he received from Rickie Fowler last December.
The clothes and flat-brimmed hat remain, but everything has changed.
Gone are the inconsistencies of a swing based on timing, and the days of showing up at major championships cautiously optimistic but invariably settling for another pedestrian performance.
When Fowler called the legendary swing coach late last year, the two had already started talking about what needed to be done. In fact, it started at the Open Championship in July following rounds of 78-76 at Muirfield.
It was Fowler’s metaphorical rock bottom.
“I was definitely ... at a confidence low as far as looking at my whole game,” Fowler recalled.
Harmon characterizes his work with Fowler as fine-tuning.
“You know me, I don’t really do major overhauls,” said Harmon, who at 70 continues to expand his staff of world-beaters, recently adding Brandt Snedeker to a stable that includes Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Dustin Johnson.
But even to the casual observer the 25-year-old’s signature re-route in his downswing is a thing of the past. From those simplified mechanics have come great things.
In Fowler’s first 14 Grand Slam starts as a professional he had a single top-5 finish, at the 2011 Open Championship where he tied for fifth. In 2014 he is 3-for-3 at the game’s most important events, finishing runner-up - and heading out in Sunday’s final group, in both the U.S. Open and Open Championship - and tying for fifth place at Augusta National.
He is the only player to post top-5 showings in 2014’s first three majors, a statistical reality that makes Fowler an easy favorite for this week’s PGA Championship.
For all his accomplishments this season, however, Fowler is not blind to the elephant on his resume. The 2012 Wells Fargo Championship remains his only Tour victory and while the competitive landscape may be changing, fans are still drawn to his style more than his substance.
Which is where Harmon comes in and where potential intersects with performance.
“I wanted to start moving forward. I was kind of at a standstill and wasn't getting what I wanted out of my game,” Fowler said of the decision that led him to Harmon.
Where most observers see Fowler’s drastically improved play in the majors this year, those within his inner circle have clocked much more subtle changes.
He added 8 yards to his average drive this season, drastically refined his wedge play (he’s sixth on Tour in shots from 125 to 150 yards) and lopped nearly two strokes off his final-round scoring average (69.64).
The first glimpse of the new and improved Fowler occurred in April during his normal Tuesday match with Mickelson at the Masters. He and Lefty defeated Jason Dufner and Johnson thanks in large part to Fowler’s nine birdies and an eagle.
“That started it,” recalled Fowler’s longtime caddie Joe Skovron. “And then after (the Memorial Tournament) some of the things he worked on and he started moving the ball left-to-right, instead of right-to-left, and he went to a go-to shot. That’s the swing changes that allowed him to do that.”
The transition has also changed the way Fowler acts and reacts on the golf course. Always one of the Tour’s fastest players, the newfound confidence has allowed him to be more selective, more measured, when the pressure builds.
“It’s allowed his golf swing to be more consistent and our strategy has become more consistent,” Skovron said. “He can hit the proper shot more often. He’s made a concentrated effort on his process, and if you’ve noticed he’s slowed down before shots. You can see him every once in a while he will step back and take a better look at it.”
Perhaps predictably Fowler’s short game, one of the cornerstones of his play since turning professional in 2009, has suffered during the transition. His strokes gained-putting average has ballooned to the highest it’s ever been, and at both Pinehurst and Royal Liverpool he ranked outside the top 10 in putting for the week.
Nor has his play in non-major events matched his Grand Slam game. He has just two top-10 finishes (a sixth-place showing at the Shell Houston Open and T-8 at Firestone) in a non-major, stroke play event and has almost as many missed cuts (seven) as he does top-25 finishes nine.
But that too seems predictable considering his wholesale transition to Harmon’s theories, and his decision to forgo short-term success in exchange for relevance in the year’s biggest events.
“Right now I'm definitely able to come in the majors and go into each week believing in myself and believing in my game and believing in what I'm working on with Butch,” Fowler said.
“That gives me so much confidence knowing that I'm working, I believe, with the best coach there is in golf. To be in positions at majors this year, and to see it actually pay off, it just keeps building confidence for myself.”
Fowler will likely always be known for his bright clothes and flat-brimmed hats, but he now is becoming comfortable with a new look – major championship contender.