Rickie Fowler’s golf swing is a throwback
That’s what his father, Rod, calls the move Rickie fashioned under the eye of a driving range pro at Murrieta Valley Golf Range near their California home. Rickie was about 3 ½ when his grandfather, Taka Tanaka, took him to Barry McDonnell for his first lesson. McDonnell was the only swing coach Fowler knew from his start to the day he turned pro last month
Fowler, 20, the former Oklahoma State standout, made an impressive start last week in his first PGA Tour event as a professional with a tie for seventh at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. The finish earned him a spot in this week’s Frys.com Open at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. It allowed him to pass on the sponsor’s exemption he had into the event.
PGA Tour fans seeing Fowler for the first time will notice he doesn’t have the classic swing most young players are taught today. He has a flat swing, that’s slightly laid off at the top and loops into his downswing. McDonnell will turn 74 in December and can still be found teaching at the Murrieta Valley Golf Range. His work with Fowler is celebrated on “Rickie’s Wall” in the range’s clubhouse. The wall sports a collection of photographs and mementos from Fowler’s many victories.
McDonnell learned from his grandfather, who came over from Scotland. His grandfather was the pro at New Bedford (Mass.) Country Club for 60 years. Senior writer Randall Mell caught up with McDonnell to talk about Fowler in a quick round:
As a driving range pro, were you a fan of the movie Tin Cup?
No, not really. I’m not big on that movie or the Happy Gilmore movie, either. Those movies were tough on business. We had people doing things they shouldn’t be doing, like aiming at houses and stuff. That wasn’t the best thing for range business. I like working at the range. You meet a lot of nice people, and you don’t have to keep 350 members happy.
You met Rickie when he was 3½, what do you remember about that?
I remember how he was all business even at that young age. He had this look in his eye. I called him the Little Hawk. He couldn’t wait to get started. He marched right out to where we were going to hit shots and was ready to go with no distractions. He would hit 5-woods to the pitching green, about a 60-yard carry. He was quiet. He didn’t talk a lot but neither did I.
Did he have that mop of long hair back then?
Oh yeah, he had that flowing hair even then.
Rickie’s father, Rod, was a Baha 1,000 champ. He had Rickie riding a dirt bike about the same time Rickie started golfing, right?
I didn’t realize Rickie was doing that at the time, but I knew he was a good athlete. When he started getting busted up on the bike, I thought, “Oh my goodness.”
Rickie broke his foot twice as a kid riding dirt bikes, once as a younger boy and once as a freshman at Murrieta Valley High School, three weeks before he was supposed to try out for the golf team. What did you think of motocross?
I remember him coming out in a cast to hit balls on one foot. Another time he came out with his chest caved in. I said, “We have to back off this sport, Rickie, God’s made golf your calling.”
How would you describe the swing you and Rickie built?
I try to make sure I don’t tell juniors things they don’t need to know, so they don’t get confused. You could see Rickie was a little lopsided when he started, his weight on one side where he would dig in for power, but he was right on plane. He swung his dad’s driver even when he was little.
Rickie’s dad and grandfather never cut down a driver for him, right? At first, he played with a woman’s driver, and then his father’s driver as he got a little older.
That’s how he worked that little figure eight into his swing.
Was that good for him, swinging that big club?
That gave him a lot of strength in his hands and forearms. He got a lot of speed doing that. I could see he was coming from inside and catching the ball square, so I didn’t take it away from him. I used to have him hit the ball with his eyes closed, for feel and confidence, going strictly by feel and rhythm gives you confidence.
So the flatter swing came from having that big driver?
He had to kind of work the club outside so he wouldn’t bounce the club over the ball. He would take the club out and drop it back in. That’s how he finds his ball. I told him don’t ever go away from that move. The only way he hits it left is if he pulls it. When he drops inside, he can hit it as strong as he wants. I have a bunch of kids I work with, and I don’t try to make them all look alike. Golf is more an art form than a science.
Rickie’s father calls you old school.
They say that, I don’t know. I let kids find their own personality in their swings. I just try to get the fundamentals in there, but I don’t try to make them all look alike. If the club is coming from the inside, and they get square to the ball, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a good swing.
What’s the personality that comes through Rickie’s swing?
Confidence and feel. You can tell, he just feels it and does it. It’s the old Bob Toski deal. See it, feel it, do it. Rickie can do it.
Rickie’s college coach, Oklahoma State’s Mike McGraw, says Rickie’s daredevil nature as a motocross kid comes through in the way he likes to hit different shots, challenging shots. Do you see that?
Yes, he does things that are just fun to watch. We used to work on shots all the time. We were always working on trying shots instead of just hitting balls. Little kids don’t get bored that way.
What kind of shots?
It might be the 18th hole at Augusta. “We need a cut here, can you do it?” He would always say, “Yeah, I can do it.” And I’d tell him I knew he could do it. Or it might be the 13th hole at Augusta, where you needed to hit a draw around the corner. He loved the challenge of that. It got his juices going. I told him you have to love the pressure of having to make a shot. I think all great players like that.
Rod said you taught Rickie to be mentally tough, never to let anyone intimidate him.
You just get out of Rickie’s way and let him play. He’s got it. He never stopped learning. It’s key. I spent most of my time on the mental side. I keep working my kids’ minds. It’s harder to groove your mind than your golf swing.
What are you trying to teach?
I’m trying to get them to believe in themselves, and not to play with a lot of thought. Just concentrate on your target. Your target may be 20 feet left, or 20 feet right, or dead at the pin.
Rickie recently bought a place in Las Vegas. Has he visited the range lately?
Yes, he came out a couple weeks before the Walker Cup, but he’s all over the place now. I got him where I want him, and he can take care of himself now. I told him I can’t be with him all the time, so he’s good at working things out on his own. Jack Nicklaus didn’t have Jack Grout with him all the time. Nicklaus said he knew he was good when he knew he could put himself back together. I believe in that. When Rickie does come to town, he takes some of my juniors out and plays golf with them. It’s a big thrill for them. He’s good about that.