Six burning questions after Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler switch
5 Min Read
U.S. Team for Presidents Cup goes from strength to strength, but they’re different players
Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR
Rickie Fowler is in and the injured Brooks Koepka is out for the U.S. Team at next month’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in Australia.
The U.S. will still be favored, but by how much? Here are six burning questions spinning off Wednesday’s announcement by U.S. Captain Tiger Woods.
1. How will this impact the Americans?
Hard to say, because while the team loses swagger, it gains something, too.
Koepka, 29, is a feared competitor who lives for the big moment, racking up six PGA TOUR wins, among them four major titles, in the last three seasons alone. As even Fowler said in accepting his new role, replacing the No. 1 player in the world is, in a sense, impossible.
Fowler, though, is an experienced talent and the prototypical team player. He thrives on the rah-rah spirit and camaraderie of these occasions, whether Presidents Cup, Ryder Cup, Walker Cup or even Canon Cup, an East vs. West American Junior Golf Association event. He’s all-in, and as Woods alluded to in announcing the move, he is a popular teammate.
All of which is to say that by adding Fowler, 30, the U.S. Team’s chemistry will change, but its potency may not. He went 3-0-1 at the 2017 Presidents Cup.
2. Will Rickie be rusty?
If so, it would certainly be understandable.
No doubt, Fowler is coming off a strong season. After a handful of heartbreaking near-misses he finally won the Waste Management Phoenix Open, collected six top-10 finishes in all, and reached the season-ending TOUR Championship for the fifth straight time.
But he has not played this fall, so we haven’t seen him hit a shot in nearly three months. He got married, and was scheduled to open his 2020 PGA TOUR season at last week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico but was forced to withdraw beforehand with an intestinal bug.
He is set to play in the no-cut Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas the week before the Presidents Cup, which theoretically would give him time to knock the rust off.
But enough time? We’ll see.
3. What’s Fowler’s history Down Under?
In a word, solid.
He lost on the third hole of a playoff to fellow American Mark Anderson (also now on TOUR) at the 2009 Australian Master of the Amateurs, but not before the two matched birdies on each of the first two playoff holes. Anderson finally won with an eagle.
Fowler also finished T2 with partner Jimmy Walker at the 2016 World Cup.
The Master of the Amateurs was played at Yarra Yarra Golf Course, the World Cup at Kingston Heath Golf Club. Both are Melbourne sandbelt courses, and plenty comparable to Royal Melbourne, whose architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, also designed Augusta National.
For the record, Fowler does well at Augusta, too, with five top-12 finishes, including a runner-up in 2018, in his last six starts there. Add it all up and he’s a great fit for Royal Melbourne.
4. How will Tiger juggle the partnerships?
Fowler will almost certainly partner with friend Justin Thomas, with whom he earned two wins (over Charl Schwartzel/Hideki Matsuyama and Branden Grace/Louis Oosthuizen) and a halve (against Grace/Oosthuizen) at the ’17 Presidents Cup at New Jersey’s Liberty National.
And what about the guys who would have partnered Koepka? He has traditionally been paired with long hitters, specifically Dustin Johnson. They went 2-0-0 together at Liberty National. And Koepka and Tony Finau provided one of the few U.S. highlights at the 2018 Ryder Cup in France as they beat the formidable European team of Justin Rose and Jon Rahm.
The question now is whom Johnson and Finau will play with. The obvious answer is each other, but that might be too easy. Johnson could easily wind up with Woods, as they teamed up to go 1-1-0 at the 2011 Presidents Cup, or Matt Kuchar, with whom Johnson halved a match that week.
Jordan Spieth, with whom Johnson went 2-1-0 at the 2015 Presidents Cup, didn’t make the team.
5. Should we be worried about Brooks’ health?
Possibly, but it’s still too early to say how this will affect the career of one of the most potent American players to come along in decades. Koepka’s status had been in doubt for the last month, since he withdrew from THE CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES, where he was the defending champion, after reinjuring the knee slipping on wet concrete while shooting a second-round 75.
What’s troubling is he’d been playing only his second event since receiving stem cell treatment on the knee Aug. 25. He said the knee bothered him for the latter part of last season despite the fact that he won three times, including a successful title defense at the PGA Championship.
As the example of Woods reminds, the left knee assumes an extraordinary burden during the swing. And as the example of Woods reminds, it can come back strong.
6. Who else might have replaced Koepka?
Kevin Na was an option, as was Brendon Todd, who has two wins in his last two starts and will go for a third straight at this week’s The RSM Classic. Woods is not one to leap to conclusions.
Realistically, though, it had to be Fowler, the straight-chalk choice.
For starters, Fowler finished 11th in the final U.S. Presidents Cup standings, barely missing an automatic spot. (The top eight qualified.) And in going with himself, Finau, Patrick Reed and Gary Woodland for his captain’s picks, Woods had already selected four of the first five players outside the top eight. Fowler was the fifth. What’s more, in announcing his picks, Woods clearly had Fowler lined up, as Rickie was the only odd man out who was mentioned by name.
“Rickie has played on a couple Presidents Cup teams,” Woods said in choosing Fowler on Wednesday. “He was someone seriously considered for a pick, and is well-respected and liked by his teammates.
“I know he’s going to do a great job for us,” Woods added.
Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and golf.com joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.