A weight lifted: Rickie Fowler finds missing link, ends win drought

A weight lifted: Rickie Fowler finds missing link, ends win drought
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When the birdie putt dropped to win Rickie Fowler the Rocket Mortgage Classic in a playoff and signal the end to Fowler’s lengthy win drought, all Fowler could do was nonchalantly put both hands on the end of his putter, tilt himself back ever so slightly and, with his chin pointed upward, exhale through a slight grin. That grin quickly widened.

Fowler hadn’t felt this light in years.

“I was kind of just still and quiet and everyone was going crazy around me,” Fowler described afterward. “It was a nice moment just to kind of feel like the weight on my shoulders was finally off.”

Just like that, Fowler was a PGA Tour winner again, for the sixth time and first since the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Seconds later, Fowler reentered the ruckus. He was mobbed by his caddie, Ricky Romano, who grabbed Fowler and gave him a big hug while violently smacking his right hand on Fowler’s back. Soon after Fowler’s wife, Allison, arrived on the green to give her husband a congratulatory kiss and hand him their daughter, 19-month-old Maya. Fowler’s next task was trying not to cry as he held Maya during his post-round interview.

“I knew it was just a matter of time with how I’ve been playing,” Fowler said. “I’ve had a couple tough weekends where I’ve had a chance and didn’t get it done. But at the end of the day, getting to hold her – yeah, winning’s great, but there’s a lot more to life than that.”

Perhaps it’s that perspective that’s held Fowler upright these past few years as he’s struggled with his game, plummeted in the world rankings and missed out on major championships. Fowler’s college coach at Oklahoma State, Mike McGraw, thinks so.

McGraw calls Fowler the “complete package.” So, even when the golf part wasn’t going well for Fowler – which it wasn’t for much of the last four years – McGraw knew, observing from a distance, that Fowler was going to be OK.

“He was trying so hard to play good golf,” McGraw said. “He hated playing bad. He couldn’t stand it. But what I saw from afar was what every coach wants to see: He’s an incredible husband and a wonderful dad … and he just treats people well all the time. And when you see that, you go, OK, this kid is put together. It’s not just about the flash and fashion and money. It’s OK to have it, but none of that really matters.”

Still, Fowler absolutely loves golf, and while everything else in his life was amazing, Fowler says, “to have the one thing that I obviously love doing – it’s not everything to me but it’s a big part of my life – it was kind of the missing link.”

And he was going to work tirelessly to find it.

When Fowler reached a low of No. 185 in the world last September, he made the tough decision to split with his caddie of 13 years, Joe Skovron, and replace him with Romano. That move nearly coincided with Fowler opting to go back to his trusty instructor, Butch Harmon, after a few years with John Tillery.

Fowler isn’t shy to admit this now, but at that point, Fowler wondered if he’d ever reach the level of player who, after a wildly successful amateur career, had won five times on Tour and played in a total of seven Ryder and Presidents cups.

“You hope the struggles don’t last, but sometimes they last longer than you would hope for,” Fowler admitted Sunday. “Even when you’re playing well, it’s not going to last forever. Being that I’ve been one of the best players in the world, plenty of good finishes and wins, I knew what I was capable of, but it’s tough when you’re struggling for that long of a period of time.

“But I knew it wasn’t far off and just kind of had to keep putting the time in, keep grinding, keep pushing.”

Highlights: Fowler’s best from Rocket Mortgage

Fowler saw some flashes last fall – a T-6 at Safeway and T-2 at Zozo. He then built more momentum at the start of the year, stringing together a number of top-20s, before catching fire this summer. Top-10s at Colonial and Memorial sent Fowler cruising into Los Angeles Country Club, where he held the 54-hole lead and eventually tied for fifth.

Fowler didn’t get that elusive major title that Sunday, but he left with something just as valuable: Fowler wasn’t just, as he’s said a couple times now, “not scared to fail,” but he fully believed he could win again.

“Probably the best I’ve ever felt about my game and played,” Fowler said of this recent period.

It showed late in Sunday’s final round as Fowler, having just carded 10 consecutive pars to lose his lead and needing to birdie the last to force a playoff, stuffed a short-iron from the second cut to 3 feet to keep his winning hopes alive. Then in overtime, Fowler fanned his drive into the fan area right on No. 18, yet got relief from casual water and, with admittedly a better angle into the green, cleanly picked his ball off a soggy lie and watched it run up to 11 feet. With Collin Morikawa missing the green long and Hadwin failing to drop a putt on a similar line as Fowler’s, Fowler stepped up and drained the winner.

Full-field scores from Rocket Mortgage Classic

Fowler is now projected to jump to No. 23 in the Official World Golf Ranking, his best mark since January 2020. He’s about to improve to No. 12 in U.S. Ryder Cup points, too. And after missing the FedExCup Playoffs twice in the past three seasons, Fowler has greatly improved his chances of getting to the Tour Championship for the first time since 2019.

With his career turning back around right before his eyes, Fowler smiled as he thought about now getting to share this experience with his family, especially Maya. She probably wouldn’t remember this moment, he figured, but at least there would be photos.

And besides, Fowler doesn’t plan to be done winning either.

Maya should, in Fowler’s mind, have many more of her daddy’s wins to witness.

“It’s just nice to have this one out of the way,” Fowler said. “I’m obviously going to soak this one in and celebrate a bit. Yeah, it’s just been a long road. I’ll get emotional at some point, whether it’s – I already did up there [during his on-green interview] – in here or when we’re heading home or over this next week.”

For Fowler, life may be much more than winning golf tournaments, but on this day, winning a golf tournament was pretty dang meaningful.

And that missing link? It’s not missing anymore.

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