Rickie Fowler’s perseverance rewarded at Rocket Mortgage Classic
8 Min Read
Written by Paul Hodowanic @PaulHodowanic
DETROIT — Rickie Fowler doesn't remember much about the putt.
Only that it went in.
Fowler looked up to the sky as the 12-foot putt rolled into the right side of the cup. He let out a wry smile. His comeback was complete with that birdie on the first hole of a three-man playoff. He’d won his sixth PGA TOUR title and revitalized his career. Fowler had seen promising signs all season but this was the culmination of all the hard work, the close calls and the near-misses.
No time for any grand thoughts, though. Not yet. Moments later caddie Ricky Romano swallowed him up with a bear hug fitting of the moment. Next came the cameras, his family and the deafening roars. Pandemonium from the markedly pro-Fowler crowd, celebrating a long-awaited victory from one of golf’s most popular players.
“I was kind of just still and quiet and everyone was going crazy around me,” he said from the clubhouse of Detroit Golf Club, roughly 30 minutes after he closed out Collin Morikawa and Adam Hadwin. Fowler did it with back-to-back birdies on the 18th hole. The first came on the final hole of regulation. The second one on the first playoff hole.
Rickie Fowler ends four-year drought with playoff win at Rocket Mortgage
With his first win since 2019, Fowler moved to eighth in the FedExCup and was expected to crack the top 25 in the world ranking. This was his eighth top-10 of the season, his most in six years.
His final reaction on the 18th green was fitting for Fowler. For as flashy as he looks at times, donned in his Sunday Oklahoma State orange, his preferred nature is understated. The sigh of relief that he let out as he holed the putt is about as expressive as he will get on the course.
From the lowest of lows last summer when he fell outside the top 150 to Sunday’s high at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Fowler remained the same: even keeled and magnanimous. Through the good but mostly bad over the last two years – Fowler was unchanged.
“I think some people when they go through (struggles), you kind of become like a shell of yourself and you go through maybe some mental torture when you're playing golf,” said Max Homa, who has endured his share of adversity on the golf course. “He's just stayed the same Rickie and I think that helps, because then once your game comes back, you're still comfortable.”
Rickie Fowler’s news conference after winning Rocket Mortgage
The weight of stardom can crush even the strongest. Fowler’s star has shined brighter than most since he joined the TOUR in 2010. The tan, scruffy-haired college kid with undeniable potential and a bold persona is a ready-made recipe for adulation … and scrutiny. Expectations were thrust immediately onto the young Californian, much of it warranted. But when inevitably he wasn’t winning enough or he failed to close a major championship, the criticism grew. Considering his immense popularity and innumerable endorsement deals, more was always expected of him. Even as he cracked the top five in the world ranking, finished in the top five in all four majors in 2014 and won big titles both overseas and abroad. His peers memorably voted him the TOUR's most overrated player just days before he won the 2015 PLAYERS Championship.
But something shifted as he struggled after missing the FedExCup Playoffs for the first time in his career in 2021 and falling outside the top 150 in the world ranking last summer. He didn’t make excuses or take out his frustrations on others. The way he handled it all with aplomb made him a sympathetic figure. This winless drought, during which he also became a father and husband, made him more relatable. More human.
He hasn’t played all four major championships in the same year since 2019, the year of his last win at the WM Phoenix Open. He hadn’t come awfully close to that sixth career victory until earlier this season, either. He had just one top 10 in each of the previous two seasons.
This victory gave his supporters something to cheer about. And it silenced the ever-present critics. A player of Fowler’s stature will always have to deal with them.
Rickie Fowler’s Round 4 highlights from Rocket Mortgage
“It's amazing to have the following that I've had and then the people that have always been in my corner and pulled for me and supported me, but you also deal with the other side, which is unfortunate,” he said. “It feels good because I know a lot of people are excited and happy, and also probably quiet down some other people.”
Fowler kept on trudging as the winless streak got longer and the questions about his performance grew louder. He was always optimistic that his good golf would return, yet realistic enough to acknowledge it might never be as good as it was before. He knew it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d get back to playing the TOUR Championship, contending in majors and representing the United States on an annual basis.
It helped that he was content in all other areas of his life. He happily married his wife Allison in 2019, and the couple have a 1-year-old baby girl, Maya. His friends remained the same, as did his partnerships. The golf was the only component missing, albeit a large one.
He relied on two familiar faces to find it: Romano, his caddie, and Butch Harmon, his swing coach.
Romano took over the bag last September after Fowler and longtime looper Joe Skovron, a childhood friend and Fowler’s caddie for his entire pro career, split. It was an easy transition, Fowler said, given he and Romano grew up in Murrieta only four years apart and Romano was a talented player of his own.
The switch back to Harmon was critical too. After spending three years working with swing coach John Tillery, Fowler sought out a simpler approach.
“I’m just trying to get back to playing golf rather than worrying and playing golf swing,” Fowler said at the time.
Harmon’s involvement hasn’t been overbearing, but it’s been enough to have influence. Fowler says he’s only seen him in person about four times since they started working together last fall. The frequent phone calls and videos sent back and forth have been crucial.
“He's the best golf coach out there,” Fowler said. “He does a great job with players, taking what they have and ultimately I think making them the best that they can be with who they are.”
A renewed confidence in his swing set in over the winter. Then he rekindled his putting prowess with the switch to the Odyssey Versa Jailbird in January. Fowler ranks sixth in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green and T29th in SG: Putting this season. At the Rocket Mortgage Classic, he ranked second in Approach and 12th in Putting.
Fowler notched eight top-20 finishes over his next nine starts after switching to the new putter. A missed cut at the PGA Championship briefly stymied the momentum, but he quickly rebounded with finishes of T6, T9, T5 and T13. It led him to say it’s probably the best he’s ever felt about his game earlier this week. Others would agree.
In the two tournaments preceding the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Fowler tied the lowest round in major championship history and then shot the best score of his PGA TOUR career. He followed his first-round 62 in the U.S. Open by taking a share of the lead into the final round. A 75 on Sunday dropped him into fifth place but there were positive signs. Six days later, he shot 60 in the third round of the Travelers Championship.
Rickie Fowler fulfills U.S. Open practice round promise over a decade later
“He's been playing phenomenal golf, it's great to see,” said Morikawa, who missed the 18th green in regulation and failed to sink his chip from the back rough to continue the playoff. “People love him. The fans still come out to see him no matter how he's playing, but he's been playing well.”
The T5 at the U.S. Open was especially instructive for Fowler. He held at least a share of the lead after each of the first three days. But on Sunday, his swing was loose and big numbers followed.
But it provided a useful experience. He’s had plenty of experience in contention over his career, but the more recent the better. It helped him at Detroit Golf Club when he missed short birdie putts on Nos. 14 and 15 to give up the lead for the first time all day, he said. Even with birdies coming from all angles, Fowler knew he could be patient.
He came through when required.
Needing a birdie on the 18th in regulation to get into a playoff at 24 under, Fowler stuck his 145-yard approach from the right fringe to 3 feet. Then in the playoff, after driving into the right rough, Fowler muscled out an iron that landed in the middle of the green and ran up to 12 feet.
Inherent in the success of those shots was Fowler’s willingness to fail. Given the trials of the last few years, losing in a PGA TOUR playoff is a far cry from the trails of the last few years.
“I'm not scared to fail. I've dealt with plenty of that,” he said.
Now, finally, there’s a victory to follow.