Rickie's revamping results in resurgence
August 05, 2014
By D.J. Piehowski, PGATOUR.COM
- Rickie Fowler's new coach, Butch Harmon, has helped the young star reach another level in 2013-14. (Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Since arriving on the PGA TOUR five years ago, one of Rickie Fowler’s great joys has been his occasional Tuesday games with Phil Mickelson.
Last week at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Fowler was already looking forward to a match with Mickelson at Valhalla, emphasizing how much work he needed to get done on Monday – reading greens, dialing in clubs and picking lines – almost sounding like a kid who needs to clean his room before joining his friends at the park.
"I've got a lot of learning to do once I get there," said Fowler, who is making his first trip to Valhalla. “I'm going to get most of my work done early on.”
A rotating cast of characters rounds out the rest of the foursome in these games (at the U.S. Open, Fowler and Mickelson reportedly lost to Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas). But in many of those matches, whether he knew it or not, Fowler wasn’t just picking up tips from one of the game’s all-time greats. Under the heat of competition, he was showing off his swing and his tendencies to the man with the Titleist cap, the sunglasses, the crossed arms and the ever-present smile.
And when the time was right, Fowler had his new coach.
A NEW BEGINNING
If you believe in destiny, you’ll like the story of how Fowler and instructor Butch Harmon came together.
At age 7, Fowler started taking lessons from Barry McDonnell at Murrieta Valley Golf Range in Southern California. Before Harmon, McDonnell was Fowler’s only instructor, though they didn’t meet much after Fowler left for Oklahoma State and eventually the PGA TOUR.
“We never laid sticks on the ground for alignment, and we never used a video camera. I don't think he knows how to operate one,” Fowler told Golf Digest in 2010. “He just taught me my own swing and how to know where the clubface is. We worked more on ball flight and making sure the ball was starting where I wanted it to.”
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Rickie Fowler Golf Feature
McDonnell passed away in 2011 at age 75, but shortly before he did, he sent a text message to Bill Teasdale, one of his best friends and the owner of the golf range where Fowler and McDonnell worked together. Teasdale kept the contents of that message to himself for nearly two years.
After missing the cut at last year’s Open Championship at Muirfield -- where Harmon’s most notable student went on to claim his first Claret Jug -- Fowler was ready to try something new. He was three years removed from winning the PGA TOUR’s Rookie of the Year award and playing in the Ryder Cup, where he birdied his final four holes, including a 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th, to keep the United States’ hopes alive.
It had been more than a year since his win at the Wells Fargo Championship, which remains his only PGA TOUR title. Furthermore, he was ready to revamp a swing that was giving him serious lower back pain and keeping him from the consistency he needed to excel on TOUR.
He asked Butch Harmon if he would take a look.
“He had me work on a few things and made me look like a total hack on the range,” Fowler said. “It just felt foreign to me at first. But it was really cool to see how quickly I was able to pick it up.”
After Harmon got the blessing from his other students, the two made it official last November and Fowler has become the latest Harmon success story, joining FedExCup leader Jimmy Walker as one of the breakthrough players of 2014. For Fowler, the choice of adding Harmon was an easy one.
“He’s taken two guys to No. 1, so he’s pretty easy to listen to,” Fowler said, referencing Harmon’s work with Tiger Woods and Greg Norman. “Plus, he’d seen my tendencies in those Tuesday games. It wasn’t like saying, ‘You’ve never seen me play golf before. Tell me where to go.’ ”
Fowler's play in the 2014 majors will get him to the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2010. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
But the cherry on top is this: If Fowler had any reservations about moving on after McDonnell’s passing, it was Teasdale who cleared them. Earlier this year, he finally told Fowler what that text message said.
“When the time is right, Rickie should go work with Butch Harmon.”
Fowler entered 2014 ready to make a serious swing change and, thankfully, the results came quickly.
When you see side-by-side video of his old swing and his new one, the difference looks drastic – gone was the re-routing and plane-changing that he picked up from swinging his dad’s full-size driver as a little kid. In his technical terms, Fowler is now “trying to stay back on my right side and keep everything shallow and then working on getting the upper body and the head moving through the ball.”
After a stretch of three consecutive missed cuts early in the year – Fowler attributes it to neglected putting while his focus was on grooving a new swing – everything finally came together at the Northern Trust Open. Even though he missed the cut, he went on to the WGC-Accenture Match Play and finished third by beating Walker, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk.
From there, the new swing was set and the short game and the confidence were back.
Rickie Fowler’s swing analysis at Zurich Classic of New Orleans
“I feel like the difference this year is that this is the hardest I’ve ever seen him work at it. I’m really proud of that,” caddie Joe Skovron said earlier this year. “He was doing everything right and it was just a matter of time.”
Harmon also liked what he saw.
“I love the kid,” he told Golf Digest. “The thing I like is he's been saying ‘I want to be known more for my golf than my clothes and my hat. I want to contend in majors.’ “
That didn’t take long either.
MAJOR SHOWINGS IN 2014
It’s almost become cliché for TOUR players to suggest that they are “setting up their games around the majors,” but if you ask Fowler, the only player to finish in the top 5 in all three this year, he’ll tell you exactly what’s different. He’s changed his schedule, playing the week before each major for the first time in his career. At each of those events, he’s putting himself through a mental checklist and making sure every shot he’ll need the following week feels comfortable.
“Playing at Houston was big and then I played Memphis for the first time, which put me in a position where I had to drive the golf ball (well) and get ready for Pinehurst,” Fowler said. “Playing the Scottish Open leading up to the British Open was helpful being in similar conditions.”
The experiment worked and Fowler finished T5, T2 and T2 at the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship, becoming the first player since Tiger Woods in 2005 to finish in the top five at the year’s first three majors. He played in the final pairing in each of the past two, where he’s run into unflinching front-runners in Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy. At each one he’s gotten just a little bit closer to winning.
“Sunday at The Open, I was able to get it around and get a lot out of the round that day,” Fowler said of his final-round 67 at Royal Liverpool. “It probably wasn't the best ball striking I had there, but it was the best possible score.”
Does Fowler’s success at the majors mean he’s destined to close the deal this week at Valhalla? Of course not. If major championships were passed out according to trends, Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood would need extra trophy cases.
What it means is that he is more equipped to handle the next chance that comes, whether that is in five days or five years.
“I just have to keep putting myself in those positions. I'm sure a little bit better golf will show up,” he said.
“But so far, it’s been pretty good.”
Flavor of the TOUR: Rickie Fowler