At 2023 WM Phoenix Open, Rickie Fowler’s return to contention feels right

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If you wanted to encapsulate the Rickie Fowler experience, or what’s become of it over the past four years, you could do a whole lot worse than the 14th tee box Saturday afternoon.

For the fans adorning the hill abutting Scottsdale Road, Fowler’s driver head meeting golf ball served as a starting gun. These might be the farthest recesses of TPC Scottsdale, but where Fowler goes, the party follows. So as his ball soared through the air, the hollers rose. “Let ‘em hang, Rickie,” yelled one fan. The more common refrain was a three-word rhyme not fit for print. It starts with Big and ends with Rick, if that helps.

On the PGA Tour, this is rarified air. Golfers seldom have cult followings. The Thunderbirds could let 120 or so of this week’s 134 participants stroll the grounds Sunday and it wouldn’t earn much more than a sideways murmur from the biggest golf die-hards.

Rickie? Rickie is one of the others.

The Thunderbirds — the Phoenix Open’s organizers — were among the first to recognize as much. Back in 2009, when Fowler was still an amateur at Oklahoma State, they invited him to the tournament as an exempt entry. That was, in part, because they could see his unique talent. It was also because they could see his unique appeal.

2023 WM Phoenix Open
2023 WM Phoenix Open

Rickie Fowler makes his way to the 12th tee during the third round of the 2023 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports)

That all congealed in 2014. On the course, Fowler finished in the top five of all four majors. He became golf’s next superstar, and had the swagger to match. His trademark Sunday look made orange a golf color and Puma an outfitting choice at munis across the country.

All of which brings us back to Saturday, at the 14th hole. For those fans, the Fowler of 2014 lives on.

The thin green ropes of a golf course, though, have a funny way of separating vision from reality. So it was on 14. As fans serenaded Fowler, the man himself buckled to one knee, begging a wayward ball to find its way back to the fairway. So it was on 15, too, where the fans erupted as he leaned to his left watching his drive sail into the desert brush. No matter, the crowd rose again when Fowler went for that par five’s green in two, taking aim at the middle clearing of a V-shaped tree. Again, the actual results betrayed them. Fowler’s ball found water.

This is the Rickie Fowler experience of late.

Since his win at the 2019 Phoenix Open, he’s wandered the golf wilderness. Over the last three seasons, his stats were as follows: 60 events played, no wins, four top 10s, 24 missed cuts. In the FedEx Cup standings, he finished 94th, 134th and 133rd.

“It’s been a tough couple of years trying to grind through things and work on some changes and ultimately feel comfortable,” Fowler said last year.

Certainly, that was visible Saturday. Fowler’s struggles off the tee were no mirage. He found just six of 14 fairways and, in his words, was “just managing our way around.”

But for once, that isn’t the full story. Take those same holes on Saturday’s back nine.

On 14, Fowler got himself to the fringe out of the left rough, setting up a two-putt par. On 15, he stuck a pitch to four feet from the drop zone. Crisis averted: par. After finding water off the tee with a pull hook on 17, he drained a tricky 13-footer for another par save.

“Did a great job of managing and scoring and kind of keeping things moving forward,” Fowler said.

And so things moved forward to 18, with Fowler occupying a space he seldom has over these past four years. Beyond the green, an electronic scoreboard showed Fowler inside the top 10 at 8 under for the week. Fans stood to attention, already in their places to watch the leaders come through minutes later. Fowler’s element.

So, from 121 yards out, he pulled out a sand wedge and provided the day’s pièce de résistance.

One bounce, then two, and there it was. Fowler’s ball nestled up mere inches from the hole. Before his tap-in birdie to move to 9 under, he pumped his arms, waving the crowd into a guttural roar.

“It’s fun to play with the fans out here when you can,” Fowler said. “I felt pretty confident from there and I had that one under control. So anything to get the fans involved and make sure they’re having a good time.”

For four years, these moments have been desperately lacking. Golf has missed them. And Fowler has missed them.

“Really the last few years haven’t been in this position a whole lot,” Fowler said. “No, it never gets old. But it’s nothing really different. We’ve been here before. So just kind of have to soak it up and have fun.”

Fowler denied the notion that his struggles change anything, fundamentally, about the experience of being in contention. The joy of walking off 18 just four strokes back with Sunday of a meaningful tournament looming is still joy, same as it ever was.

But this is not Rickie Fowler, same as he ever was. He’s got wrinkles now, an elder statesman during the Tour’s youth movement. The skater boy hair that used to pop out from beneath his golf cap is long gone. As he spoke with a reporter following Saturday’s news conference, his eyes lit up, spotting his one-year old daughter, Maya, waddling towards him, calling out for “dada.” When his media responsibilities were done, parental duty took over. On the player’s patio beside the TPC Scottsdale clubhouse, he played with Maya, twirling her in his arms until she was too tired to laugh anymore.

The soundtrack to their father-daughter session was familiar. From beyond the utility golf carts and media podium, a few fans had spotted him. “Ric-kie, Ric-kie,” came the chants.

The Rickie Fowler experience, meet Rickie Fowler.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek