SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Over the first three days of U.S. Open week, USGA officials escorted 11 different professionals to the media center at Shinnecock Hills for pre-tournament interviews. Ten of them have won majors.
The outlier was Rickie Fowler.
Fowler boasts a decorated resumé, and his fan appeal extends beyond perhaps all of the other 10 players outside of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But the glaring hole in his credentials lingers, and it’s the reason why he’s still fielding questions that Justin Rose, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson all stopped answering years ago.
So the attention once again focuses on one of the game’s most visible stars with a simple query in play: is this finally the week that Fowler takes center stage after serving a supporting role in so many other recent major celebrations?
Whatever expectations exist for Fowler to earn a breakthrough victory, whatever grip he has on the unenviable title of best player still without a major, were heightened and strengthened by his runner-up performance at the Masters. Not all close calls measure the same, but Fowler’s steely glare coming down the stretch at Augusta National, and his nearly flawless shot-making with the pressure at its peak, were notable even though he came up one shot short of Patrick Reed.
“I left there knowing that I could go win a major championship,” Fowler said. “It was just fun to actually step up and execute. That kind of solidified and validated my actual belief of what I can go do.”
That same belief is quite prevalent among Fowler’s peers, who by and large hold his prospects in high regard. Rory McIlroy was responsible for one of Fowler’s most notable near-misses, edging him out in the gloaming four years ago at Valhalla, and he didn’t hesitate to submit a projection that Fowler will eventually win majors – plural.
“There’s so much more to winning a golf tournament than just playing well. Your timing has to be right. Things have to happen at the right time,” McIlroy said. “The more times Rickie puts himself in position, the better his chances are of winning one. But I think everyone in this room would be really surprised if he wasn’t to go on and win at least more than one major in his career.”
Still months shy of his 30th birthday, Fowler hasn’t lacked for chances. He has already racked up eight top-5 finishes in majors, the fourth-most ever among players without a win and only three behind Lee Westwood on a list that amounts to a backhanded compliment. Seven of those results have come over the last 17 majors, starting with his clean sweep of close calls in 2014 and culminating with his most recent runner-up in Augusta.
Knowing that the inevitable questions are still heading his way, Fowler fields them with aplomb. He notes that time is on his side, given that Phil Mickelson won all five majors after turning 34, and he cites his 2015 Players Championship victory as an instance where he “basically won a major.”
But the heat of the spotlight is undeniable. Fowler is largely viewed as the best player still in search of a maiden major, and barring a win or a significant run from the likes of Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama, he’ll continue to bear that burden every time he tees it up in the four biggest events.
It likely wasn’t by design, but there’s some symmetry in the joint decision by Fowler and Mickelson to head off-property for their practice Tuesday, eschewing the tournament circus for a round together at Friar’s Head far from any camera lens or microphone.
Mickelson is trying to shake things up to somehow snag the title that has eluded him the most. Fowler is doing so in an effort to snag, well, any of them.
“We all know I’m good enough to win. I know I’m good enough to win,” Fowler said. “Being prepared and making it happen that specific week, there’s been a few guys that have been very good at that – Jack, Tiger. Phil didn’t get his first for a while, so there’s still hope. I’m not too worried about it.”
It’s a similar attitude to the one he offered a year ago at Erin Hills, when he grabbed the early lead with an opening-round 65 and contended deep into the final round. But amid the sprawling Wisconsin landscape, as has been the case so many times before, he couldn’t come up with the necessary shots while another player stepped up at the exact right moment.
He returns to the U.S. Open a year older, perhaps a little wiser and with a newly-minted fiancée by his side. He also has fresh in his mind the memories of the latest instance where major glory extended just beyond his grasp, and he’s keen to ensure that this is the last time he has to answer questions about when it will finally happen.
“We’ll get it done,” he said. “And once we get our first, it’s definitely not going to be the last.”