Until last year, it was all too easy to dismiss Rickie Fowler as a likeable lad, helping the game appeal to youngsters but unlikely to ever cause much of a stir on the Sunday afternoon of a Major. He was the kid in orange, trailed by dozens of adolescent wannabes sporting identikit flat-peaked luminous Puma caps. The relaxed Californian looked like he’d be more at home on the white sands of a surfer’s beach than in the white sands of Augusta’s bunkers.
But 2014 year changed all that. Finishing in the top five of all four Majors – including second-place finishes at The Open and US Open – showed that Rickie Fowler has what it takes to mix it with the big boys.
Don't call Rickie Fowler overrated
“2014 was a big step in the right direction for me,” he says. “To feel as comfortable as I did under pressure in the Majors, it’s a good stepping stone going forward.” But still Fowler’s doubters were unconvinced; an anonymous survey of his fellow Tour pros at the start of this season saw him voted the most over-rated player, alongside European Ryder Cup icon Ian Poulter. But with two wins this year, including the Players Championship – golf’s unofficial ‘fifth Major’ and a FedEx Cup playoff event – Fowler can expect to receive less of the vote if the survey is ever repeated.
“Success for this year was being in contention like I was last year, but of course I wanted to win,” he says. “Getting my first win of the year was the biggest thing for me. I just want to win, wherever it is. If it happens to be a Major, that’s a bonus.”
Young at heart
The young Fowler was a natural athlete and says he would be working in the extreme sports industry if golf hadn’t been an option.
“I’d be on a BMX bike, a mountain bike or a dirt bike,” he suggests. “Definitely something on wheels.”
Largely self-taught on a driving range in Murrieta, California, a prodigy with Fowler’s talent was never likely to need a Plan B. In his final year of high school, Fowler won the SW League Final with scores of 64 and 69, before leading his team to the state final.
“I started playing when I was three and loved it straight away,” he says. “I started playing tournaments when I was four-and-a-half, and this was always my dream.”
Black is the new orange
Fowler has been living that dream since gaining his PGA Tour card for the 2010 season, but now 26, he has a hardened resolve to win and show that there’s more to him than stylish hair and bright clothes.
“I know that I’m known for what I wear on the golf course, but I want to be known as a great player,” he says. “I remember when I lost to Hunter Mahan at the Phoenix Open during my first year on Tour, he said that he wanted to be remembered as a great player, and great players win. I want to go out and win golf tournaments.”
Despite having come so far and proven himself as a genuine competitor, Fowler knows he still has work to do.
An awesome foursome?
“The three guys that everyone talks about – Jason, Rory and Jordan – they’ve clearly played the best out of anyone for the last couple of years. I’m looking to add my name to the mix. We all have a long career ahead of us, with most of us being in our mid 20s.
“There are a lot of good young players right now and there’s a strong potential of having a good group of guys rather than just be one or two guys as a rivalry. I’m not sure if two guys will stand out; it may be a bigger group.”
With such strength in depth at the top of the game now, Fowler knows he can’t afford to rest on his laurels.
“I definitely need to put in a bit of work with my game,” he says. “I just need to tighten a few things up with my driving and get my putter going again. There’s always something to improve on. I’d like to start rolling some more putts in and start finding more consistency with the driver – but that’s golf.”
Fresh from Butch
On hand to help is Butch Harmon, the man who helped Tiger Woods to eight Majors and whose list of clients, current and past, reads like a Who’s Who of golfing greats. Ernie Els, Stewart Cink, Greg Norman, Davis Love III, Fred Couples, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Brandt Snedeker have all benefited from Harmon’s wisdom, and the changes to Fowler’s swing have been significant and impactful.
“The first time I worked with him was on the range after I missed the cut at the 2013 Open,” recalls Fowler. “We’ve been working on cleaning up the takeaway, getting myself started in the right position, and trying to shorten up the backswing. My tendency is to get a little long and the club then gets stuck behind me. I’ve enjoyed the ball-striking Butch has helped me with and I really trust my irons at the moment. It’s been nice he’s been able to see my tendencies over the last two years.”
In it for the wins
Fowler is in form – he won the Deutsche Bank Championship in September – and ranked sixth in the world, but wants to push even further next year.
“I’m happy with the wins I’ve had on the PGA Tour, but moving forward, my goal is to have multiple wins in the next four years. This last year was like turning the page, and now I’m looking to do bigger and better things.”
A Major ambition
A maiden Major would certainly tick that box, and Fowler sees The Open as perhaps his best opportunity. He loves the challenge, and bagged the this year’s Scottish Open on the fabled links of Gullane.
“I love all the Majors, but my favourite style of golf is links; I love the challenge that comes with it. Whether it’s good or bad weather – you never know what you’re going to get playing links golf in Britain.”
While some players have dismissed the forthcoming Olympics, which sees golf return for the first time since 1904, as little more than a scheduling inconvenience, Fowler is chomping at the bit to play in Rio.
“It would be awesome,” he says of the possibility of competing next summer. “It would be an honour to be a part of that USA team. There’s so much to be decided in terms of which Americans will qualify, but it’s something that I’ll always shoot for.”
No matter the prize, the eyes of the ambitious, confident and resolute Rickie Fowler are now trained on it.