News & Opinion

Fowler wins many admirers but few titles

Rickie Fowler has all the qualities you could ask for in a PGA Tour pro. He’s smart, approachable, humble and handsome, a guy who seems to appreciate the bounty of good fortune bestowed upon him. Pro golf may have its share of narcissists and complainers, but Fowler clearly is neither. If you don’t like Li’l Rickie, that’s your problem.

Easy to root for, hard to figure. Fowler’s quest to become one of the game’s elite players hasn’t gone as expected. Four PGA Tour victories in 211 career starts testifies to a lack of progress during his nine seasons in the big leagues. A highly touted collegiate player at Oklahoma State, a Walker Cup hero before age 21, Fowler almost won a tour event before earning full-time status.

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Despite his immense popularity, Rickie Fowler has yet to meet lofty expectations in nearly a decade on the PGA Tour.

© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Despite his immense popularity, Rickie Fowler has yet to meet lofty expectations in nearly a decade on the PGA Tour.

Two months after claiming his card, Fowler almost won again, this time in Phoenix. In a nod to the kid’s seven top-10 finishes and effortless likability, Fowler was voted by his peers as 2010 Rookie of the Year, ahead of Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman now owns as many major titles as Fowler has total victories, which is another way of saying Dewey actually did defeat Truman.

So, Fowler had this terrific start, so fabulous that U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin added him to the 2010 squad with one of his picks, which is basically unheard of when it comes to first-year players. I happened to wake up around 4 a.m. last week with the TV still on; Golf Channel was showing the singles matches from that tussle at Celtic Manor.

Pavin took a ton of heat for taking Fowler to Wales. The kid responded by performing brilliantly, holing lengthy putts at the 17th and 18th on Sunday to swipe a half-point from the Euros and keep the slim U.S. hopes alive. Other than Justin Leonard’s bomb on the 17th at Brookline in 1999, you can’t name a bigger clutch moment for Old Glory since we started getting our butts whipped by the lads overseas.

Fowler was the real deal, and there’s reason to believe he still is, but for all the millions he has piled up, for all the love he gets from the masses, he needs to bear down on the weekend and start winning golf tournaments. He has held six 54-hole leads over the years and won once. Those four Ws are offset by 13 runner-up finishes, producing a ratio of more than 3-to-1 and suggesting that Fowler doesn’t have a nose for the goal line.

A crucial stretch on this winding road occurred in 2014. Fowler achieved something rarely seen: top-five showings in all four major championships, including back-to-back seconds at the U.S. and British Opens. It should be pointed out that Martin Kaymer wound up eight strokes clear of the field at Pinehurst and McIlroy was never seriously threatened at Royal Liverpool, but Fowler received a lot of attention for his consistency. Progress had been made.

Then came the 2015 Players Championship, which not only remains the finest performance of Fowler’s career, but one of the best finishing kicks in golf history. Down by five strokes on the 13th tee, Li’l Rickie dumped four birdies and an eagle on the leaders, going 6 under en route to the clubhouse before beating Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a playoff.

That’s the thing. Fowler can burn down any golf course ever built, as he proved again this spring when he shot 65-67 over the weekend at Augusta National. His torrid stretches often come after he has dug too deep of a hole. When he does stake himself to a lead or works his way into contention, his aggressive style can lead to recklessness.

We see the flashes of greatness, and when it comes to skill sets, Fowler, 29, has the complete package. He always ranks among the Tour’s best putters, but across the board, his numbers land him in the top third in virtually every statistical category. Fowler ranks 60th in length off the tee and 62nd in accuracy, a combo that makes him one of the best drivers in the game.

A partially torn oblique will sideline him for a week or two, but with the FedEx Cup playoffs on the immediate horizon and another Ryder Cup barely a month away, Fowler has plenty of opportunity to reinvent himself. His only victory in the past three years came at the 2017 Honda Classic, leaving a guy once mentioned in the same sentence as McIlroy and Jordan Spieth now stranded at the crossroads.

Given his passion for motocross, this would be a good time for Li’l Rickie to rev the engine.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com