Rickie Fowler’s return to form already feels like distant memory

Rickie Fowler of the United States walks from the third tee during the first round of the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands

Rickie Fowler at the Travelers Championship last week.

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Late in the summer of 2022, Rickie Fowler was deep in a well-documented spiral. He hadn’t won since February 2019, hadn’t played in either the Masters or the U.S. Open since 2020 and his world ranking had plummeted to 185th. Desperate for answers that he wasn’t finding in the dirt during marathon range sessions in South Florida, Fowler called Mr. Fix-It, as in his former swing coach, the legendary Butch Harmon. Over the coming months, Harmon and Fowler reunited, both virtually and in person, and piece by piece began rebuilding the swing that had once made Fowler a top-5 player and consistent threat in the majors.

Progress came quickly: T6 at the Fortinet in mid-September; T2 at the Zozo, in Japan, in October; more consistency across virtually every part of his game. When the new year dawned, Fowler picked up where he’d left off. After missing nine cuts in the 2021-22 season, he didn’t miss a weekend in 10 starts from January through early May and finished top 15 six times. That made-cuts streak ended at the PGA Championship but he quickly regained his form, finishing T6 and T9 in his two starts before the U.S. Open. If you’re a Rickie fan, you know what came next: a 62-68 start at the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club that gave Fowler the solo 36-hole lead. Was Fowler finally…back? The golf world seemingly wanted to shout as much from the mountaintops, but Fowler was reluctant to deliver the necessary sound bite.

“I wouldn’t say it’s all back,” he said ominously after his second round in L.A. “It can get taken away very quickly. Anyone that plays this game at all, you never know.”

Fowler didn’t win that week — a 70-75 weekend left him five behind Wyndham Clark, in a tie for fifth — but he did nab a victory just a couple of weeks later at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, knocking off Collin Morikawa and Adam Hadwin in a playoff. For the first time in more than four years, Fowler was a PGA Tour winner again.

This week the Tour returns to Detroit Golf Club for the 2024 edition of the Rocket Mortgage. As defending champion, Fowler should be among the favorites, but the sportsbooks know what Fowler knows: At least some of his struggles have returned, and even his +5,000 odds are probably generous. In 17 starts this calendar year, Fowler is without a top-10 finish, and virtually every part of his game has contributed to the slide. In each of the six primary Strokes Gained categories — from driving to iron play to putting — he ranks outside the top 100. “You’re seeing it throughout the bag where things haven’t been as good,” Fowler said Wednesday. His world rank, which had climbed back to 21 in the middle of last year, has dropped to 50, but Data Golf, which puts greater weight on recent performance, has him at 98.  

Form, as any golfer at any level knows well, comes and goes, and it can be difficult to pinpoint the moment it leaves you. But in Fowler’s case, his play has been unremarkable since his win a year ago. From mid-July of last year through the FedEx Cup Playoffs, he had just one top-20 finish — at the 30-player Tour Championship. As a captain’s pick at the Ryder Cup, Fowler played only two matches and won no points. He opened the 2024 season by missing two cuts in his first four tournaments.

“Obviously terrible start to the year for me coming off of last year,” he said in early-March at the Cognizant Classic, near his West Palm Beach, Fla., home. “Never got anything going on the West Coast. I don’t think we exactly had the best weather, either. I’m not blaming it on that, but it definitely didn’t help me to get things going.” He added, “I’m ready to kind of get things going back how they were last year.”

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But things didn’t get going. In his next 10 starts, Fowler cracked the top 20 just once, at the RBC Heritage, followed by two missed cuts, at the Memorial, where he carded a second-round 82, and the U.S. Open, where he posted a second-round 77. Last week at the Travelers: a small ray of sunshine. Fowler closed with a 65 that landed him a T20.

So, what’s the deal? Fowler has still been working with Harmon, his last in-person session coming at the Masters in April. But he believes his woes are stemming less from his full swing than they are from his ineffective putting; Fowler is losing 0.244 to the field on the greens, which ranks 131st on Tour. That deficiency, he says, has put pressure on him to execute other shots.

“A big part of freeing myself up and allowing myself to play better golf starts on the greens and helps when I’m making putts, which last week started to see that,” he said Wednesday. He was echoing a sentiment he had expressed at the Travelers on Sunday when he said: “You’re not seeing putts go in and it kind of adds some extra stress to having to hit greens or hit it closer, chip it close, that circle gets quite a bit bigger once you see some go in.”

When asked at the Travelers if he’s feeling frustrated, Fowler said: “Definitely not anywhere as bad as it was a few years back, but some similarities there. Having been through that and dealt with that and ultimately coming back to playing well, I can deal with just about anything.” Then he added another familiar refrain: “I think a big thing is always kind of trying to put things into perspective, family stuff, you know, with some of the guys we’ve lost part of the family out here on the Tour, yeah, it’s not that big of a deal, but we all kind of just continue to grind.”

Fowler was referring to Tour pro Grayson Murray, whose May suicide sent shockwaves through the Tour community.

Fowler isn’t the same person who burst onto Tour in 2010 with orange pants, shoulder-length hair and seemingly limitless potential (he beat out Rory McIlroy that season for Rookie of the Year honors). He’s a family man now, with a wife and young daughter and another child on the way. Winning still means a lot but “it’s not everything,” he told Golf Channel reporter Todd Lewis this week.

When Fowler was unable to capitalize on his halftime U.S. Open lead and win his first major, he said on Sunday evening of that week — this was after shooting a disappointing 75 — that seeing Maya before he ducked into scoring “kind of takes a lot of that away, because in the kind of big picture, big scheme of things, yes, we want to win tournaments and be the one holding the trophy, but she could care less if I shoot 65 or 85.”

Fowler himself still cares what he shoots, of course. Even if his perspective has evolved, he’s still prideful and hungry; his career will be short-lived if he’s not. Can the throwback Donald Ross design that awaits him this week serve as a spark?

“It’s a fun course to play,” he said, “and especially having good memories and coming off the win last year, we’ll see if we can kind of reignite some stuff.”

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.

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