FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – At this point, there’s no sense in beating around the bush.
Rickie Fowler came to The Barclays knowing full well that it was time to deliver. Long viewed as one of the faces of American golf, his Ryder Cup chances stood in peril heading into the final week of automatic qualification, the unexpected byproduct of a disappointing summer.
It’s a daunting task, knowing that a two-year window comes down to your performance over a handful of weeks. It’s the type of pressure that has caused players in the past to crumble, and will undoubtedly be the undoing of would-be stars in the future.
For Fowler, though, the raised stakes may have been just what he needed to kick-start his stagnant game.
“I don’t mind it,” Fowler said. “I’ve always liked kind of being put up against the wall, in a corner, and having that on me.”
The wall and the corner are both very much in sight after a stretch that has included only one top-10 finish in the last nine starts for Fowler. Viewed as a lock for Hazeltine only a few months ago, he entered this week at No. 12 in the American standings - on the outside looking in - and likely relying on a pick next month from Davis Love III to make the team.
Fowler even added last week’s Wyndham Championship in a last-ditch effort to move up the standings, but a T-22 finish didn’t do the trick.
So he came to Bethpage Black needing to turn things around in a hurry, and he promptly delivered a 4-under 67 that put him within a shot of the early lead. After the round, Fowler stepped to the microphone and answered a series of questions that began, predictably, with the Ryder Cup.
“That’s the No. 1 priority coming into the year. I’d say that’s always one of the main goals for sure coming into a Ryder Cup year. Even in the off year, you’re thinking about it,” he said. “You’d be lying if you’re saying there’s not more (pressure). Yeah, I’m thinking about it. The other guys are thinking about it. So if it’s even on your mind at all, not that it’s pressure in a way, but it’s more to think about.”
They’re comments that likely garner a hearty fist pump from American fans desperate to celebrate a victory in the biennial event, and they certainly don’t hurt his cause for a potential captain’s pick from Love. But they also reinforce the fact that Fowler has a tendency to deliver when the margin for error is the slimmest.
There was the late birdie run to win The Players last year, then the emphatic 72nd-hole approach in Scotland and the late chip-in earlier this year in Abu Dhabi. Some guys wilt under the bright lights, but Fowler appears to seek out their warmth.
“I think he’s always responded to pressure situations down the stretch, and a little bit of sense of urgency,” said caddie Joe Skovron.
The recent results have been even more frustrating for Fowler simply because the culprit has been so clear. The ball-striking that has made him an elite player remains ever-present, but a balky putter has simply failed to cooperate.
There have been spurts where it all came together, sure. Fowler started well at Baltusrol, and he notably spun a front-nine 29 during the third round of the Olympics. But the consistency required to turn nine holes into 18, or to turn one round into four, has evaporated.
“It’s been tough. I mean, personally, me knowing exactly how close it is, and it’s a really fine line,” he said. “The difference between Rio Saturday and Sunday, I swung it better going out on Sunday, and I shoot 29 on Saturday and I’m over par (on Sunday). I can’t remember what I shot, but it was not 29.”
Even just last week in Greensboro, Fowler hit 60 of 72 greens in regulation but never factored and didn’t shoot lower than 67 on the par-70 layout.
It’s a cautionary tale that could still apply to this week’s outcome, but Fowler has been fervent in his belief that his game has not been as far off as the results indicate. A Tuesday session with putting guru Paul Vizanko, with whom Fowler has worked since he was 14, paved the way for a 28-putt performance in the opening round.
“It’s close,” Fowler said. “I hit a lot of good putts today, some were just mis-reads. It was nice to make a couple and get off to a solid start.”
Love said last week at Sedgefield that he wants hot hands on his 12-man squad, hoping to head to Hazeltine with as much momentum as possible. But he’ll also be looking for players who are able to handle the heat one of golf’s biggest stages, calm their nerves and put forth a strong performance when it matters the most.
Consider Thursday’s round a gentle nudge from Fowler to Love, a reminder that he just might be the right man to suit up and deliver next month.
“I think the Ryder Cup speaks for itself. It’s the greatest team event we have. It’s arguably the best event we have all year, or every two years,” Fowler said. “It’s a special event and something I don’t want to miss out on.”