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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rickie Fowler always acts and looks like he’s living on the right side of par.
Rarely disheveled, forever optimistic, polite and approachable as the day is long. He’s been a crossover star to all ages, a natural who has graced scores of magazine covers and starred in numerous commercials. Married to a beautiful woman, resides in an oceanside mansion, plays golf for a living.
But while it’s a life well played, it isn’t without occasional hazards, and currently, he’s dealing with the most persistent slump of his career. As he works through a swing change, the winner of five PGA Tour titles and two others on the European Tour hasn’t won since the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open. His most recent top-10 came in the 2020 Sentry Tournament of Champions 14 months ago, and in his last 44 starts, his missed cuts (13) more than double his top-10s (6).
He’s dropped to No. 70 in the world rankings, his lowest mark since 2010, and the decline has been so unshakable, he isn’t qualified for the upcoming Masters, which he’s played 10 consecutive years.
“It’s definitely been a grind,” said Fowler, 32. “It’s been more of a struggle not beating myself up too much and kind of taking a step back, let everything happen, be patient.”
At times, however, his patience has run thin. There have been difficult moments between Fowler and his caddie, Joe Skovron (who has known his boss since he was 3). Occasionally, he’s taken his frustrations home.
“It’s tough for all of us that are involved, from my caddie, to my wife, she’s having to deal with me at home,” Fowler said. “I’m trying to be the best husband that I can, not bringing golf back home. But when you’re out on the road that long and on the grind, putting in the work at home, it’s pretty much been all golf.
“We’re all in this together and we’re going to keep battling it out.”
Familiar ground could provide Fowler the ammo to finally win the battle – the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass for this week’s Players Championship, which he won in 2015; and the Champions Course at PGA National for next week’s Honda Classic, which he won in 2017.
But if the battle continues after the Honda, Fowler will continue to grind and he and his team will remain confident the swing changes he’s making will take hold. In late 2019, Fowler turned to swing coach John Tillery after working with Butch and Claude Harmon for nearly a decade. Fowler and Tillery work more on how the body works to put the club in the proper positions instead of Fowler trying to put the club in the right positions.
“It’s golf, not a life sentence or character indictment,” Tillery said. “It frustrates him like it would anyone, but it also motivates him versus having some pity party.
“He’s a professional athlete in an insanely competitive sport. Talent doesn’t go away. We know what we’re doing and what we’re seeing in practice.”
“He feels like he’s getting close, I feel like he’s getting close,” he said. “I know that’s a cliché. But he’s putting the work in. He’s getting good information from John Tillery.
“But everything kind of added up. The putter went cold. Making a swing change. Then you get some results that aren’t so good. And sometimes it’s not as far off as it looks. I know it’s an easy thing for me, but you’ve heard so many good players say it. You’re watching it and it’s not that far off. It’s a thing here, a thing there.”
Add Jordan Spieth to those in Fowler’s corner. Spieth has started to turn the corner after dealing with his own slump – he hasn’t won since the 2017 Open Championship and fell to 92nd in the world earlier this year, his worst ranking since 2013. But he has a tie for third, two ties for fourth and a tie for 15th in his last four starts.
Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth during a practice round prior to the start of the 2016 Players Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
“The most difficult thing about struggling is when you’ve had a lot of success it’s almost impossible to struggle in silence, in darkness, and get your work done in the dark,” Spieth said. “We saw a nonhuman in Tiger Woods be able to make massive changes quicker than what is probably realistic for just about anybody else. That can sometimes hurt the quickness of jumping to conclusions of people, and so struggling publicly when you’re somebody like Rickie, it makes it hard.
“He’s sticking to it, he’s a very, very, very positive person and I think that’s going to serve him well. He also treats people better than just about anyone I’ve met. So all in all he’s got a lot more people in his corner than are not, that believe in him and he believes in himself, and as long as he continues down that path he’s going to be very successful.”
Fowler also knows he’s conquered adversity and criticism before.
When he arrived on the PGA Tour in 2009, he quickly became a celebrity, gracing magazine covers, popping up in numerous TV commercials and starring in PGA Tour pitches as one of the game’s leading men. But as his win column remained bare, critics charged he was just concerned about his image. Well, Fowler took care of that by winning the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship.
Three years later, he landed at The Players Championship to the news that his peers had voted him and Ian Poulter as the most overrated players in the game. With four birdies and an eagle in his last six holes of regulation and two more birdies in four holes in the playoff, Fowler hoisted the championship hardware that week and twice more than year.
And during the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this month, Sir Nick Faldo, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and CBS’s lead analyst, took a loathsome shot at Fowler by tweeting: “Good news is if he misses the Masters he can shoot another six commercials that week!” Faldo said it was a round-about way to inspire Fowler but nonetheless apologized.
Fowler shrugged it off. He’s got more important matters to deal with.
“Everyone that’s played really at all, especially at some sort of a high level, completely understands that golf is up-and-down,” Fowler said. “Unfortunately, this one’s been a little longer than I would like it to have been, but, yeah, we’re grinding through it. It’s a matter of time.
“We’ll just keep kicking the darn door and she’ll fall.”
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