CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The grin on Rickie Fowler’s face was undeniable.
Standing in a small alcove next to the scoring area at Quail Hollow Club, a briefly-shirtless Fowler popped out from behind a window. He was in the midst of changing from his work outfit into something more casual, all while tapping on the glass to get the attention of the Champion Golfer of the Year.
Fowler and Jordan Spieth were waiting out the suffocating heat of another Charlotte afternoon, girlfriends by their sides, to be among the first to greet Justin Thomas after his rousing victory at the PGA Championship.
For Spieth, it was an opportunity to flip the script from a month ago at Royal Birkdale, to be there for a friend who had been there for him. For Fowler, though, it was another opportunity to welcome a friend into a club to which he still doesn’t belong.
There’s plenty of evidence to explain why Fowler is one of the most likable, and most well-liked, players on the PGA Tour. Good looks and an easygoing charisma go a long way, while his bold fashion choices make him stand out from three fairways over. His game also sparks plenty of head-turning in its own right.
Fowler’s social network on Tour runs deep, and in recent years he has become a one-man, 72nd-hole greeting committee, sharing in major breakthroughs with Bubba Watson, Jimmy Walker, Spieth and now Thomas. Based on the outcome of the last two PGAs, the best shot at lifting the Wanamaker Trophy next year at Bellerive might be to snag a spot in Fowler’s contact list.
The smile was genuine Sunday, just as it had been on all the other occasions. Fowler can speak glowingly of his friends during their moment in the sun, and he did so again standing on the 18th green at Quail Hollow. But there's a stark difference between the hugs Spieth handed out and those offered by Fowler.
“I told him I was going to go out and try to show him something. At least I was able to do that on the back nine,” Fowler said as Thomas posed with the trophy a few feet away. “To see Jimmy on 18 last year, and to do the same thing with JT, I know that my time is coming. It’s not long.”
The frustration of watching some of your closest friends realize one of the exact and specific dreams you have worked toward your entire career is undeniable. But when it comes to Fowler, the sentiment has always been that he will eventually be the one commanding the celebration.
Surely, sooner rather than later it will be a gaggle of his peers greeting him behind the final green, welcoming him over the threshold with drinks in hand, rather than the other way around. Right?
As anyone who has ever heard the full-throated cries of “Rickie! Rickie!” at a PGA Tour event can attest, Fowler’s appeal to a younger demographic runs deep, and he often gets lumped into the “young guns” category. But he has a couple years on Spieth and Thomas – more than four, in fact. While the other two just turned 24, Fowler will be 29 in December.
That’s hardly over the hill by any standard. But the passage of time has a habit of accelerating without your permission.
Fowler just wrapped up his 30th major start as a pro. Sergio Garcia’s win at the Masters shows that a true talent can never be counted out, but perhaps a more apt comparison would be Phil Mickelson.
Lefty won his first in his 43rd major start as a pro, but by the time he drove down Magnolia Lane in 2004 the pressure to get across the finish line was stifling. That first win predictably led to two more over the next eight majors, and Mickelson was off and running.
Given a clean bill of health, Fowler will make his 43rd professional major start at the 2021 Masters. By then he’ll be 32 years old, and it certainly feels like he’ll have at least one major trophy to his name.
But what if he goes 0-for next year, or the year after? What if he heads into a new decade still answering the same questions and living vicariously through the success of his friends and peers?
The math cuts both ways. The odds are in Fowler’s favor that he will win a major over any extended period of time, but the odds will always be against him in a single given week. The pressure to buck the latter half of that proposition mounts with each close call, especially after a year in which he had realistic chances in three of the four majors but came up empty.
Questions about Fowler’s ability to win on a big stage were answered emphatically with his electrifying close at the 2015 Players Championship. He displayed it again Sunday, when he torched the back nine at Quail Hollow with four birdies in a row to race up the leaderboard, only to find the hole he had dug during the third round was too big to overcome.
“Fowler has what it takes,” Ben Crane tweeted as the engraver began carving “Thomas” onto the Wanamaker. “Won’t be this one, but he’s gonna close out a major someday. 32 on the back in contention is what champions do.”
The damage inflicted by his three-hole stumble to close out the third round proved costly. Fowler chalked up those errors to unusually poor putts during a good putting week and a wind shift at the wrong time, just as he lamented that he simply didn’t convert chances during the final round at Erin Hills that might have helped him keep pace with Brooks Koepka.
After a final-round 76 at the Masters, he described a short game that “went sideways” on him at a critical juncture.
They’re all rational explanations, and they speak to how difficult it is to put every facet together when the lights are shining the brightest. But they also serve to ratchet up the pressure that Fowler will face the next time he works his way within arm’s reach of the trophy.
On Sunday at the PGA, Fowler was happy for his friend. When it’s his turn to hole the final putt on the 72nd green, the receiving line could stretch for miles.
But he won’t have a chance to see that play out for at least another eight months, and the questions could very well linger longer than that. If they do, the pressure to finally be the man in the middle of the celebration will only intensify.