News & Opinion

At 30, Fowler reaches career turning point on PGA Tour

With only 5 victories in a decade on Tour, Rickie Fowler must start to live up to that massive potential

As hard as it is to believe, Rickie Fowler is 30. He’s newly married. He’s fabulously wealthy.

And he’s behind. Way behind.

You’d think that he’d be better by now, win more by now, higher world ranking by now, a major or more by now.

2019 Tour Championship
Rickie Fowler, who has been long on hype and potential and short on results for most of the past decade on the PGA Tour, needs to start winning some big events now that he is in his 30s.

But he’s not, which is why this year – more than any other – is a put-up-or-shut-up year for Fowler. He starts the new season this week in Japan for the first-ever Zozo Championship with a career record that’s difficult to defend for someone with as much ability and promise that Fowler holds.

He has five victories since coming onto the PGA Tour in 2010, including the 2015 Players Championship. For lesser players, that would represent a fine career. However, Fowler always has been thought to be on a path toward greatness when he came out of Oklahoma State in 2009. But he seems to have been cursed with unlimited potential.

He has been passed as if he were standing still by prominent players his age or younger – Rory McIlroy, along with Fowler’s good friends Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, for instance. Way more people are talking about Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa than they are about Fowler, who is quietly but surely dropping out of the conversation when it comes to major-championship contenders and best players in the world.

Fowler stands No. 20 in the world, which is about where he deserves to be. He’s not underrated; neither is he overrated. He’s good but not great. And in the current climate of world golf, only the great are talked about at any length.

He’s good-looking, photogenic and now has a beautiful wife, having married pole vaulter Allison Stokke a couple of weeks ago in a private beach ceremony at an undisclosed location. Stokke and Fowler each posted a picture on their individual Instagram accounts and got more than 300,000 likes combined.

So, Fowler is still popular among golf fans, particularly the younger ones who delighted in dressing in the traditional head-to-toe orange that Rickie decked himself out in on Sundays just a few years ago.

But Fowler aged out of that costume, and though he has been growing up, his golf game hasn’t matured with him. Though it’s true that he won in February in Phoenix at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, his season couldn’t be evaluated as anything more than mediocre.

Fowler posted his 10th and 11th top-10 finishes in majors in 2019, a statistic that seems to mean less and less. The late, great writer Dan Jenkins often said that a top-10 meant that you had a chance to win – and didn’t.

Fowler was T-9 at the Masters, three strokes behind winner Tiger Woods, with a 69 in the final round. He would have needed a 66 or better on Sunday to have had a chance to win. He was T-6 at the British Open, 10 strokes behind winner Shane Lowry. Fowler started Sunday eight shots behind Lowry and would have needed 64 to have had a chance.

In 2014, Fowler was top-5 in all four majors, including runners-up at the U.S. and British opens. But he never had a chance at Pinehurst, finishing eight strokes behind Martin Kaymer. And he shot 67 on Sunday at Royal Liverpool, good enough to finish two strokes back of McIlroy.

He was T-3 at the PGA Championship at Valhalla, with a Sunday 68, two shots behind McIlroy. And he was T-5 at the Masters, shooting 73 on Sunday that put him six behind Bubba Watson. After that major season, the golf world was abuzz with talk that Fowler was on the cusp of winning majors. A shot or two, one more made putt each day surely would put him over the top.

But that was five long years and seemingly half a golf lifetime ago. What does Fowler lack? For a long time, it was the inability to keep round-killing and momentum-halting double bogeys off his scorecard. He always has been an aggressive player, but it didn’t appear that he had the ability to pick the right spots to take on the big tee shot or fire at flags.

And for someone who has a putting stroke that is so universally lauded, he never seems to make many putts that mean something. He was 13th in strokes gained putting on the PGA Tour in 2018-19, but his skill with the flat stick comes up lacking in big moments.

Back in the day, it was said that a professional golfer’s career peaked in his 30s. Maybe that will be the case with Fowler. But in this win-now, win-early atmosphere that’s being taken over by players in their 20s, Fowler has a lot of guys to catch and pass.

At the moment, in the golf world, 30 is looking like an age that’s way older than the actual number.