ORLANDO, Florida – We’ve come a long way since Baker’s Bay.
It’s been almost five years since Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler joined buddies Justin Thomas and Smylie Kaufman in the Bahamas for #SB2K16 and brought all of social media along for the fun. At the time, Spieth was ranked No. 2 in the world and was fresh off a historic 2015 season that included two wins, a runner-up and a T-4 at the major championships. Fowler was fifth in the world and just two years removed from a season in which he posted top-5s in all four majors.
A half-decade or so later, Spieth and Fowler are still ranked three spots apart – it’s just that Spieth is No. 62 and Fowler is No. 65, with both players failing to qualify for last week’s World Golf Championships event in Bradenton, Florida.
The numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story. As Spieth prepares to make his Arnold Palmer Invitational debut this week at Bay Hill, the 27-year-old Texan appears on the cusp of permanently breaking out of a three-plus-year slump. Meanwhile, Fowler, the 32-year-old API regular, arrives at Arnie’s Place trending the other way – and fast.
“It’s very frustrating,” Fowler said Tuesday at Bay Hill. “It's made it at times tough between [caddie] Joe [Skovron] and I on the course. We have a great relationship, we have known each other for a long time, but when I'm out there and I'm not hitting shots that I'm visualizing and seeing, it's hard. It's tough for all of us that are involved, from my caddie, to my wife [Allison]. … We're all in this together and we're going to keep battling it out, but, yeah, it's been frustrating. I'm ready to be past that.”
Fowler hasn’t posted a top-10 finish since the 2020 American Express, a span of 23 starts during which he’s missed 10 cuts. His last victory came at the 2019 Phoenix Open, which moved him to eighth in the world. After reaching as high as seventh, Fowler has since experienced a significant world-rankings freefall. From the start of this season last September, Fowler has dropped more than 25 spots – and more importantly, he’s potentially played himself out of a Masters start this April.
For Fowler to avoid missing his first major in more than 10 years (since not qualifying for the 2010 U.S. Open), he’ll either have to work his way back inside the top 50 by the end of the WGC-Match Play or win.
“That's the short-term goal,” said Fowler, who added that he hasn’t paid much attention to the rankings this year.
He doesn’t need to. Fowler is well aware of his struggles as he continues to rework his swing with new instructor John Tillery, whom Fowler teamed up with last November following a split with longtime coach Butch Harmon. He can see them: Fowler enters this week ranked 166th and 167th, respectively, in strokes gained: approach and strokes gained: putting. And he can hear them: the analysts, the fans, even Nick Faldo chimed in recently, tweeting on Wednesday: “Good news is if he misses the Masters he can shoot another six commercials that week!”
Spieth, who can perhaps relate better than anyone in Fowler’s close circles, said Fowler has remained “very, very, very positive” through his recent adversity.
“There's certainly been some similarities in trying to be the best that we can be and having that be done well and then having it go through kind of dips, as well,” Spieth said. “So, for him, I think, and for me, too, the most difficult thing about struggling is when you've had a lot of success and therefore it's almost impossible to struggle in silence, in darkness, and get your work done in the dark. There's just going to be so much noise around and so much emphasis on results versus the true understanding of what your end goal is and how much time that can take in golf. … Struggling publicly when you're somebody like Rickie, it makes it hard, so blocking out the noise is so important and sticking to what you're doing is so important and having a team around you that can tell you that.”
Spieth talked Wednesday about how he draws back on memories of playing golf as a teenager to help block out such noise. “Just to be a kid out playing, you know?” he explained. It’s certainly been easier of late for Spieth to do that, too.
After nearly falling outside of the top 100 after a missed cut at Torrey Pines earlier this year, Spieth has caught fire in recent weeks. He grabbed a share of the 54-hole lead before tying for fourth in Phoenix. He then shared third the next week at Pebble Beach, where he was the solo 54-hole leader. And two weeks ago, at Riviera, he had another solid showing in tough conditions, tying for 15th.
“I feel excited to go work on what I'm working on,” Spieth said, “and continue to try and fine tune it … try and have kind of every tool in the toolbox.”
Bay Hill will be another measuring stick. While Pebble and Riviera are two of Spieth’s favorite layouts, he had never seen Arnie’s Place until this week (he planned to visit Palmer’s office on Wednesday). And don’t forget: this week’s host course isn’t often kind.
“It's a little tricky because it seems like a course where course knowledge can go a long way, given the difficulty of it and especially on and around the greens,” Spieth said. “I'll try and do a crash course and that hasn't been difficult for me. It's been a long time since I've played a new event, but it's been something I've really enjoyed trying to learn how to kind of make it like I've played it eight times before.”
This week will mark Fowler’s 10th start at the API, a tournament that – as much as he loves it – hasn’t brought out the best in his game. He’s only missed one cut here, but he also has just one top 10, a T-3 in 2013.
So, while Fowler was encouraged by a closing 67 at the Genesis last month, he also realizes that his troubles aren’t likely to suddenly end this week – and for now, he seems OK with that.
“It's golf,” Fowler said. “Everyone that's played really at all, especially at some sort of a high level completely understands that golf is up-and-down. You take advantage of the times where you're playing well and ride those out, because you know that it's not always going to be that way, there are times where it's going to go down and you're going to have to fight through it. Unfortunately, this one's been a little longer than I would like it to have been, but, yeah, we're grinding through it. A lot of it I would say is more just on the mental side now, just getting back and playing as much as possible to just get the reps in.
“It's a matter of time. We'll just keep kicking the darn door and she'll fall.”