CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rickie Fowler has answered the tough questions before at Quail Hollow.
Five years ago at the Wells Fargo Championship, everyone in golf was wondering when the motocross-loving, long-haired, human Crayola was going to break through on the PGA Tour. His answer was emphatic: Squaring off against Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points, and dressed in all orange, Fowler flagged his approach shot in the playoff to set off a raucous celebration.
Fowler’s victory was supposed to launch his career, and maybe even ignite a compelling rivalry between two of the sport’s young, telegenic stars.
“He has gone through a little bit of scrutiny and a lot of pressure trying to get that first win,” McIlroy said then. “But now that win is out of the way. Hopefully, that will ease the pressure a little bit.”
Except that week has only ratcheted up expectations.
Since their duel five years ago, McIlroy has blown past Fowler in the majors, 3-0 (and four total). Even in regular events there is a sense that Fowler, 28, has underachieved: His four PGA Tour titles are nothing to scoff at, of course, but his career haul is only one more than four players (Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas) have won this season alone. It doesn’t compute that the guy who has just about everything – mass appeal, good looks, the unwavering support of his peers and a killer all-around game – has yet to claim one of the legacy-making titles.
“What he’s done and what he’s had the opportunity to do doesn’t surprise me or anybody else,” Points said Friday. “But winning majors is hard. You can do all the right things and not win. And then you can do things and be like, Oh, I didn’t really feel like I did everything that right, and then you can walk away with the trophy. He’s going to be in the hunt again and he’ll have the opportunity.”
Fowler has had plenty over the past few years.
This year, too, Fowler has reached the doorstep of history, only to be turned away in the final round. The 36-hole co-leader at the Masters, Fowler played in the penultimate group on Sunday, just one shot behind, and stumbled to a 76. At the U.S. Open, he held the first-round lead and again entered the final round in good position, only two shots back, but played cautiously and shot 72, getting lapped by Brooks Koepka and prompting another wave of think pieces about when he will take the next step in his career.
And so here is another opportunity. At a tougher, meaner Quail Hollow, Fowler stayed out of trouble, shot 1-under 70 Friday and positioned himself in the top 6, just five shots back heading into the weekend at the PGA Championship.
Fittingly, Fowler was grouped for the first two days with McIlroy, but he hardly resembled the thrill- and pin-seeking 23-year-old who had won here in 2012. He didn’t deviate from his game plan, often taking iron or fairway wood off the tee when McIlroy bashed away with driver. It was a calculated decision, part of what Fowler said he learned from his previous experiences in contention this year.
“You can say you played defense a little bit, but it’s not exactly like you are playing scared out there,” he said. “You are playing smart and picking your way around the golf course.”
The distance gap between McIlroy and Fowler was striking, but so were the results.
Surrendering 32 yards off the tee, on average, Fowler outplayed McIlroy by five shots over two rounds.
“With the way I’ve been playing, with how I’m swinging it this week, I know I can win,” Fowler said. “That’s already set. It’s more so in between the ears, making sure I make the right decisions and not get ahead of myself. If we do that, it will be all right.”
Fowler has a history of timely rebuttals. The victory at Quail Hollow silenced the doubters who said he was more style than substance. His thrilling comeback at The Players in 2015 came a week after a magazine poll labeled him the most overrated player in golf.
At the end of another major season, this would seem an opportune time for another statement.