KAPALUA, Hawaii – It’s no secret that Rickie Fowler is among the game’s preeminent fashionistas. This is, after all, the same guy who made bright orange a Sunday staple, the same guy who has rolled up to PGA Tour events in high-tops and joggers.
But Thursday’s choice at Kapalua was bold - even for him.
Fowler teed off for the year’s first round at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an island-inspired, flower-print shirt that he wore untucked. That may not sound cutting edge here on the shores of the Pacific Ocean but is very much venturesome within the often-stoic confines of professional golf.
It’s all part of Fowler’s fabric. He's a player who grew up racing motocross, a player who introduced a generation of young fans to the flat-bill hat. But has there ever been an item his clothing sponsor asked him to wear that was just too much, a style that caused a moment of pause?
“Not necessarily. Maybe some that I may not have liked the color combos or anything within reasonable boundaries that I wasn't afraid of going out and doing something different,” he said. “I've always been different. I don't want to go straight down the middle of the fairway. I like to skirt into the rough a little bit but at the same time obviously still be respectable.”
That was a fitting examination of his style choices, to be sure, but there was something to Fowler’s answer – given just moments after he’d charged in a 22-footer for eagle at No. 18 to move to within two strokes of the lead – that reflected how he approaches golf.
Is Rickie daring? Without a doubt. But determined should also be in the equation; he just doesn’t wear that element as colorfully.
It was there this week when he was asked a generalized question about how he’s approaching the new year. He went straight to the major elephant in the room.
“The biggest and main [goal] is get a major,” he said in a very real moment of self-awareness. “I think we did a good job last year of putting myself in contention multiple times, but there needs to be some better weekends to make sure that we're on top come Sunday afternoon.”
For those who have been living under a rock the last few years, Fowler has come close, many times in fact, but has not won a major.
At last year’s U.S. Open, he started the weekend just a stroke off the lead, only to finish with rounds of 68-72 for a tie for fifth. A few months later at the PGA Championship, where he also tied for fifth place, it was a third-round 73 that hurt his chances.
In total, over 32 major starts, he has eight top-10 finishes, including runner-up outings at the U.S. Open and The Open in 2014.
Fowler has long been aware of his bridesmaid status, but recently there seems to be an added sense of urgency. Instead of clichés, there’s now an edge to his answers.
He knows he hasn’t won a major and he doesn’t like it.
Winning the annual lid-lifter in Maui won’t necessarily change that perception, but it will add to an expanding theory that Fowler is on the verge of the kind of breakthrough that can only be completed with a major victory.
Fowler ended 2017 with a flourish, finishing second at the OHL Classic in November and lapping the field at the Hero World Challenge by four strokes. His play on Day 1 in Maui – a round that could have gotten away from him after he played Nos. 11 through 13 in 3 over par – only added to that budding confidence.
“It's not necessarily not being defensive or playing offense, but just going out there and playing like you really believe it and you just go get the job done,” Fowler said. “It's not going to happen every time, but going out there and playing the way I did through the week at Mexico to the way we played on Sunday at Tiger's event, we do that, and I think we'll be just fine.”
It would be wildly unfair and patently inaccurate to view Fowler’s laid-back approach as a detriment to his game. Make no mistake, the 29-year-old is committed to perfecting his craft, as evidenced by his work with swing coach Butch Harmon in recent years.
Fowler huddled with Harmon early last month in South Florida, and it’s a telling sign that the duo worked on many of the same things they’ve been focused on in recent years, primarily Fowler's wedge play from 100-150 yards and back swing, which suggests fine-tuning more than finding something.
It’s that kind of commitment, that kind of drive, that can sometimes get overshadowed by Fowler’s brash wardrobe, but then there’s no separating the trendsetter from the tradesman. It’s all born from the same DNA.
There are limits to Fowler’s brash approach, however. Would he go for the relaxed, untucked look at other tournaments, like the Masters?
“I thought it was fun and definitely fitting for Maui,” he smiled. “It's not like you can really bring out this shirt in many other places but on the island.”
Makes sense - a flower print would definitely clash with a green jacket.