LA QUINTA, Calif. – Rickie Fowler began his 12th year on the PGA Tour Thursday at PGA West, which is about a 2-hour harrowing drive across the San Jacinto Mountains to where he grew up in Murrieta.
Long-time Coachella Valley locals will tell stories of Fowler coming across the peaks to compete in junior events and the line was always the same – Who is coming in second? At the dawn of his 12th year in the big leagues the questions for Fowler are now much more complicated.
“Last year it sucked. It wasn’t fun,” Fowler said, simply, following his first round at The American Express.
It’s not that Fowler is at a loss for words when it comes to the state of his game, it’s just that an economy of emotions works best.
Last year’s American Express was the last time Fowler finished in the top 10 and he’s tumbled to 60th in the world ranking. It’s the first time since 2014 he’s found himself outside the top 50.
The one-time American team staple isn’t even on U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker’s radar for this year’s matches and he’s currently not qualified for the Masters, PGA Championship or U.S. Open.
“By far the worst year I’ve had. It was bad for a lot of people,” Fowler said of 2020. “I think a lot of people want to move on so that’s kind of my outlook, use that as a steppingstone/building block. There’s a lot more we want to do to be better than we were before. That’s why any of us go through changes.”
Beyond the flat-brim hat and the colorful clothes, Fowler is honest. He knows how bad the last few months have been. He’s also an optimist and has seen glimmers of good play over the last year, but the consistency has been missing.
He started strong last spring at Bay Hill before fading to a tie for 18th and was alone in third place after three days at last year’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational before closing with a 73.
“I felt really good at Memphis and thought I would have a legit chance of winning and got off to a good start and it went sideways,” he said. “The break did not help me.”
He missed as many cuts (four) as a he made after the quarantine and failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career.
After Butch Harmon stopped traveling full time, Fowler turned to swing coach John Tillery in 2019 because he said he “needed something new,” and he remains confident the two are heading in the right direction.
“We’ve been able to see the progress, looking at how the body is moving, where the club is at, some of it is a bit more of a mental battle and a trust factor for me,” he said. “There’s been a lot of good, but it’s different when you’re putting it into play.”
Like Thursday at PGA West where “Golf in a Dome” required an aggressive style of play at the traditionally low-scoring event. It was exactly what Fowler was hoping for.
“I thought that driving would be the least of my worries. These courses are more second-shot courses and so I was thinking, OK, cool, go drive it halfway decent and have a lot of good irons and wedges and some looks at birdie,” he said.
Instead, he hit nine of 14 fairways, and just nine of 18 greens in regulation, on his way to a 1-over 73 that left him nine strokes off the lead. He struggled to quantify his frustration with his driving before finally settling on, “not what I was expecting.”
The same thought likely covers the last year. Fowler set out with Tillery in search of more consistency in an understandable quest for constant improvement. At the pace the game is evolving standing still really isn’t an option on Tour, but the frustrating results have taken a toll.
There’s a comfort level for Fowler on the range but he’s struggled to bring that to the course, which is nothing new for any golfer, but the prolonged struggle is real.
“What feels comfortable to me golf-swing wise is not where I want to be. Trying to get into better positions, which feels foreign to me, is trusting that, OK, this feels terrible and doesn’t feel right but I need to get to a point where that is a new normal,” he said. “It would be like getting used to wearing a mask.”
With that Fowler adjusted his own mask, a predictably colorful option, and headed to the range. There are still plenty of questions that need to be answered.