Fowler plagued by back problems since U.S. Open

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – There’s an intriguing conundrum in professional golf. The better a player is, the more he’s criticized when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Tiger Woods could tell you a thing or two about what he thinks of that. Nobody cares if a journeyman misses the cut, but when an elite talent “only” finishes in a share of eighth place? Sound the alarms.

Of course, this conundrum is doubled for young players whose potential continues to exceed performance. And it’s tripled for those who fall under that category while decked out in day-glow orange garb from head to toe.

So when Rickie Fowler has a season during which he wins his first PGA Tour event, but falters down the stretch when attempting to qualify for the Ryder Cup team, the critics come out in droves. What they didn’t know this year, though, could have curtailed their argument.

Fowler had a secret.

Beginning at the U.S. Open in June, the 23-year-old was hampered by back problems – specifically, inflammation to his L4 and L5 left facets and left S1.

“I’ve always dealt with some lower back [issues],” he revealed during this week’s World Challenge, where he finished in a share of fourth place. “Obviously I put a lot of stress on my body. Just got into a couple of bad habits where I was putting a little too much stress on it and it flared up. It just became a bit of a problem. I wanted to play through FedEx Cup and make the Ryder Cup, but obviously didn’t play as well as I wanted to.”

Follow a long stretch that saw him reach the Tour Championship but fail to make the U.S. roster, Fowler withdrew from events in Malaysia and Korea, taking an eight-week break that included rest and rehabilitation.

“The harder and longer the swing – like driver and 3-wood – were usually the ones that would bother it more,” he said. “For the past two months, I’ve been working on some stuff and trying to work on fundamentals. I could go work on 7-iron and it was fine. What would bother me is when I really cranked on it with driver or 3-iron. The first time I was able to hit multiple drivers was last week.”

Fowler maintained that he is using both the World Challenge and next week’s Shark Shootout to test the injury and ensure that he’s ready to go for the 2013 season. Following his T-4 result on Sunday, he maintained that he felt good, but still wasn’t 100 percent healthy.

He will start his year at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Jan. 4-7.