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After sweeping changes, a confident Rickie Fowler could rejoin world's best

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RIDGELAND, S.C. – As the PGA Tour’s top players gather one final time in 2022, a question to ponder: Is Rickie Fowler poised to rejoin them?

Now three-and-a-half years removed from his last victory, Fowler has plummeted outside the top 100 in the world while remaining one of the game’s most popular players and an important asset for the Tour.

That was made clear a few months ago, when Fowler jetted to Delaware for the invitation-only gathering of stars who helped shape the immediate future of a tour under siege. But another reminder came earlier this week, when the groupings for the CJ Cup were announced: There was Fowler, a sponsor exemption into the field, still featured prominently, alongside FedExCup champion Rory McIlroy and rising star Tom Kim.

The glittery group will offer a glimpse into Fowler’s past.

Full-field tee times from The CJ Cup in South Carolina

After all, he was Kim’s age (20) when he first splashed onto the scene in 2010. Back then, Fowler was the flat brim-wearing, floppy-haired, flashy hotshot who nearly won in his second Tour start. His caddie that year (and for the next 12) was Joe Skovron, who rode shotgun as Fowler’s immense popularity made him one of the game’s leading attractions and highest earners. Even if his win rate never caught up to his Q rating, Fowler’s record was nothing to scoff at: five Tour titles and 15 runners-up. As high as No. 4 in the world. Top-5s in all four majors in 2014. A consistent presence on seven U.S. teams.

Now, after their partnership ended this summer, Skovron has latched onto another rocket ship: Kim, who earlier this month became the first player since Tiger Woods to notch two Tour victories before the age of 21.

“I haven’t talked to [Skovron] directly about it,” Fowler said this week, “but it seems like it’s him going back to ground zero when we first started. He may be starting all over again.”

In some ways, this also marks a new beginning for Fowler, who turns 34 in December and is entering the next phase of his career.

It was at this tournament a year ago that Fowler seemed to stir his slumbering game. For three days he blitzed Summit Club and shared the 54-hole lead with McIlroy, but on the final day he stalled out and was lapped by his longtime friend. Afterward, Fowler struck an optimistic tone: “Obviously disappointed, but this is a big step in the right direction with where we’ve been in the last two years.”

It turned out to be a false start.

Fowler didn’t record a single top-20 finish the rest of the season, sank to 167th in the world and sneaked into the playoffs as the last man in. Sensing the need for a change, he cleaned house before the start of the postseason, parting ways with both Skovron and swing coach John Tillery.

Fowler handled each of those emotional decisions with his usual elegance and grace. Even as his ball-striking became more erratic and the putts stopped dropping, he never publicly bemoaned his lack of progress or the downward direction of his career. He missed majors and milestones but never moped. Some misconstrued his general contentment in life with competitive indifference – after all, he enjoyed an otherwise charmed existence – but internally, at least, Fowler was stewing.

“We were living and dying with it,” he said. “Golf was really the only thing that wasn’t clicking or in a good spot.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are or how good you have it, he’s competitive,” Justin Thomas said. “He’s not just gonna be content or OK with playing poorly. His life is great, and he has a lot of things people don’t, but I’m sure he’d trade a lot of it for better golf and winning tournaments.”

CJ Cup power rankings: Rory defending, No. 1

Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick headline the top 10 power rankings for the CJ Cup at Congaree.

With his Tour prospects diminishing, Fowler could have bolted for LIV – a concession that his best days were behind him – but instead leaned into the turnaround. He hired Ricky Romano as his caddie and returned to legendary instructor Butch Harmon, with whom Fowler had the most success in the mid-2010s. Thanks to the foundation laid by Tillery, Fowler worked with Harmon to create a steeper plane with his left arm, giving him more room on the downswing and making his action more efficient.

“I’m in a lot simpler spot as far as a couple things I’m working on and trying to exaggerate them,” Fowler said.

The early returns have been positive.

He tied for sixth in the season opener in Napa, his first top-10 in 11 months. But there were other signs, too. Better flight control. Poise under pressure. And perhaps the most welcome indicator: He started filling it up again on the greens.

Five years ago, Fowler was the best putter on Tour, but he dropped all the way to 161st last season. That only exacerbated his problems: He could neither capitalize on his rare solid ball-striking days, nor save himself when the missed greens piled up. Continuing some of the putting drills he learned from Tillery, Fowler focused more on situational practice than static mirror work and keyed in on putts inside 10 feet.

“You don’t make those,” he said, “good luck.”  

And even after a subpar driving week led to an early exit in Vegas, Fowler spent a few extra days at Harmon’s teaching studio to drill in his new swing feels. The confidence returned, and then so did the good karma: Before boarding the Tour charter to Japan, Fowler caught up with the newest Shriners winners, toasting Skovron and Kim over dinner and drinks.

The Kim-Skovron team nearly returned the favor a week later, after Fowler took the 54-hole lead at the Zozo and appeared poised to end his winless streak that extended to February 2019. Instead, he posted a ho-hum 70 on the last day and came up short, again. It felt like a familiar script to the CJ Cup a year ago, and once again Fowler expressed disappointment but also optimism.

“It’s just nice to see some things head in the right direction and build some momentum and confidence,” he said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with the last few years.”

Fowler comes close, settles for 'bittersweet' T-2

A final-round 70 left Fowler one shot shy of Keegan Bradley, who ended his own drought with his first victory since 2018

So, what’s different this time?

Why is this version of Fowler here to stay, and not just another tantalizing tease?

“You see guys get in funks or a slump, but for someone of that caliber for that long, it’s not normal,” Thomas said. “I know he’s been working harder than I’ve ever seen him work, and he’s maintained a really positive mind frame toward everything, which is hard to do. He’d be the first to tell you he’s moving in the right direction, but there’s still more he wants to do.”

Clearly, Harmon is a believer, too, congratulating his pupil on Instagram: “Another strong week for Rickie. Wonderful progress in just one month. I would say he is 75% closer to where he needs to be. Still a work in progress but we are getting there. He has really worked hard on everything I have asked him to do.”

That Fowler is not yet where he “needs to be,” but is still contending for titles, seems to suggest that his best days could still be ahead of him.

“I spent some time with Butch in Vegas,” Fowler said, “and he’s said it’s the best he’s seen me swing it when I can exaggerate and do some things. The last few years have set me up for where I’m at right now. It’s still fairly new, not fully comfortable, but to see that we’ve had the success early on and keep hammering it, it’s going to keep getting better as it gets more comfortable.” 

Fowler’s reemergence would be a significant boon to the Tour, which over the years has splashed the colorful character all over its promotional materials. (He’s returned to familiar territory this week, in a featured group for TV.) It was revealing, too, that both he and Tiger Woods attended the BMW meeting even though they didn’t qualify for the second playoff event.

It was further proof that his voice – and his cooperation – mattered.

“He’s not only one of the most marketable players, but I think we all believe that his potential is up there as being one of the best in the world,” McIlroy said. “He’s shown it before, and I think he will show it again.

“There’s a ton of guys that are important to the Tour, but I think Rickie just brings a different dimension, a different element to things that make people tune in.”

McIlroy said attending the stars-only meeting should have given Fowler plenty of motivation. There, they were discussing plans for the upcoming season, but also how the landscape will continue to evolve in the years ahead.

“He obviously wants to be a part of that,” McIlroy said, “but he knows to be a part of that he’s going to have to play a little better. It’s been great to see him start really well, and hopefully it continues.”

Indeed, in three events Fowler (337) has nearly surpassed his FedExCup total from last season (340), a hot start that should ease the pressure on a player who has recently been on the card cut line. This is Fowler’s final start of the year – he’s serving as a groomsman in Thomas’ November wedding – but he is no longer unsure of his direction.

“To have some solid finishes and being in a good spot,” he said, “we can go into our offseason and enjoy and know, OK, we’re in a very good spot. Let’s get ready to jump back on it and get after it.”