Rickie birdies 6 of his first 11 holes for the week, but gives away three shots coming in, posting an opening-round 69 that leaves him T11 and two shots off of a four-way first-round lead.
It takes about a minute and 33 seconds to walk from the tee box to the green at TPC Sawgrass’ 17th hole. After the tee shot Rickie Fowler just hit, his sixth and most devastating attack on the most famous green in golf, he shaves a few seconds off his time.
Fowler’s pace in moments like this has been a point of focus in recent years. The golden rule is that he’s not supposed to pass caddie Joe Skovron while they’re walking. He’s supposed to be breathing slowly and thinking about words like “process” and “tempo” and “routine.” But you can see in his face that after six hours and one of the best finishes in the history of golf, he’s finally allowing his mind to be elsewhere.
As he walks toward his 4-foot birdie putt, the concrete stare that’s present during Fowler’s best and worst moments starts to crack and he’s doing his best not to let a smile seep through. The atmosphere isn’t making it any easier. The 17th, which Skovron later recalls as being as loud as any hole he’d ever experienced, is lined with fans chanting Rickie's name over and over and over. The weather is perfect and the wind – helping off the right – has made 17 and 18 as benign as those two terrifying holes can be. He’s facing a short putt on a green where he’s been automatic for the week, a putt that – after a Kevin Kisner miss – will finish off a victory over the best field in golf and further validate all his swing changes and close calls. All this on a week where he can’t take five steps without being asked about an anonymous player survey that named him one of the TOUR’s most overrated golfers.
When he rounds the final turn and makes his way up the artificial turf ramp that connects the island green to the rest of Ponte Vedra Beach, he’s three lengths ahead of Skovron. The smile is still trying to wriggle its way though and he looks like a kid trying not to laugh during a parent’s lecture.
Fowler is one of the best players in golf so to say his win at THE PLAYERS Championship was unlikely is misguided. But the way in which he won, and the way he made it to the PGA TOUR in the first place, is what still makes you scratch your head.
As unorthodox as the story is, THE PLAYERS also felt like another stop on the ride toward the inevitable. Fowler’s rise to the forefront of golf has always felt more like destiny than possibility.
And in this moment, he knows he’s arrived at where he’s supposed to be. You can see it on his face, right there in the smile he’s trying to hide.
Bill Teasdall had been looking for a solid place to hit balls since the mid-1970s. Nothing fancy. Nothing flashy. Just a grass range with good balls and good turf where families and kids and millionaires and teenagers could all try to figure out the game together. In October of 1992, he stopped searching and opened the Murrieta Valley Golf Range in a small country corner of Southern California.
Teasdall, a former mini tour player, and his best friend and business partner, a local teaching pro named Barry McDonnell, quickly realized what they had.
“When we opened, Barry said to me, ‘Bill, we’ve got the perfect place to practice,” recalls Teasdall. “Now all I need is a young kid with some talent and I’ll take him all the way to the TOUR.’ And Rick showed up two months later. ”
The vibe of the range, 15 acres of judgment- and pretension-free turf, was what made it easy for Yutaka Tanaka and his just-turned-4-year-old grandson Rickie – two people who had roughly the same amount of golf knowledge – to jump in and give the sport a try. Since Rickie was Yutaka’s first grandchild, he asked that Fowler’s parents, Rod and Lynn, give him one day a week, Wednesday, to spend with the boy. Since the range had just opened, Rickie and Yutaka thought hitting golf balls would be a fun way to spend it.
For a while, Rickie and Yutaka alternated their activities – fishing one week, golf the next – until it became clear where the boy wanted to be, not just on Wednesdays, but every day he could. He hadn’t started school yet, so he was asking Lynn, who knew even less about golf than her father, to take him to the range more and more.
Every day Rickie was hitting balls, he was learning from the older kids (and much older adults) at the range. He was trying to figure out how he could get to an actual golf course or gain entry into junior tournaments he was too young to play. Lynn was eventually pointed in the direction of Valarie Skovron, the director of Valley Junior Golf. Her son Joe Skovron, Rickie’s future caddie, was 12 and already playing junior events around Murrieta.
“Rickie was asking and asking, but at that time, our insurance wouldn’t let us take on any kids under 5 years old,” Valarie Skokvron says. “When he was 4 ½, my husband and Bill and Barry and everyone just finally said, ‘Just give him a chance.’ So I told him to come out and play some tournaments.”
“She’s one-for-one on breaking the rules,” Joe Skovron laughs.
Valarie Skovron clearly remembers the second event she allowed Rickie to play, at a nine-hole course in San Jacinto, California. After making sure all the kids had teed off, she hopped in a golf cart to drive around and keep an eye on everyone. She quickly caught a glimpse of tiny Rickie Fowler, clutching his golf bag and running after his ball.
“I drove up to him and I said, ‘Rickie, you don’t have to run from tee to green. Take your time. And he goes, ‘No, no. I’ve gotta keep up with the big kids. I’ve gotta be good.’ And I just remember that. ‘I’ve gotta be good.’ He was always that way.”
I think it’s possible Rickie could be the first person my dad gave those stories to.
Rickie started to practice and play tournaments regularly, but on Wednesdays, he’d hit balls with his grandfather and hear stories about Taka's childhood, during which he was forced into a World War II internment camp for people of Japanese heritage.
Those moments with the man who introduced him to golf are the reason Rickie (whose middle name is Yutaka) cried after losing the Waste Management Phoenix Open in a playoff in February. It wasn’t because he missed out on a PGA TOUR victory; golfers lose far more tournaments than they win. It was because his grandfather, one of the 618,000 fans at TPC Scottsdale, had never seen him win in person.
Those moments led to Rickie getting his grandfather’s name tattooed in Japanese on the inside of his left bicep last year. They led to school projects and reports about Yutaka’s experience in the internment camp.
“I’ve never heard my dad talk about it and I’ve never heard Rickie talk about it,” Lynn says. “I think it’s possible Rickie could be the first person my dad gave those stories to.”
Every old-school instructor needs a shade tree under which to dole out advice. It’s part of the mystique.
At the Murrieta Valley Golf Range, Barry McDonnell planted his own, a shady pepper tree at one end of the range, and named it the Hogan Tree. It was fitting that when he started working with Rickie, he called him the Little Hawk; McDonnell thought the intensity in Fowler’s eyes, even as a kid, resembled Ben Hogan’s.
Despite Fowler’s urging, McDonnell pushed back on giving him lessons until he was 8 years old. Kids can pick up hobbies faster than they can drop them and he wanted to make sure golf was going to stick. But if there were any commitment questions, Fowler put them to bed quickly. When he was eight, he was drafted to pitch in an older kids’ baseball league. After practicing with the team for a few weeks, he told Lynn that he was convinced baseball was ruining his golf swing and that he’d have to quit.
“I’m not sure that I understood how good he was, but I knew then that golf was what he wanted to do,” Lynn says.
It’s not that the golf swing he was preserving was a vision of perfection. Swinging his dad’s full-size driver as a kid caused Fowler to develop an unorthodox figure-8 in his swing. The way Teasdall describes it, he would pick the club straight up and then drop it to the inside, “otherwise he would have just bounced the club over the top of the ball.” Rickie also had a habit of swinging so hard that his feet came off the ground. They were “problems” that most instructors would have nixed on Day 1, but McDonnell couldn’t have cared less.
Teasdall would ask McDonnell about it all the time. What about his feet coming off the ground?
“The little guy just wants to hit it further. That will make him strong.”
What about the loop in his swing?
“He’ll get stronger and that will go away. Don’t even worry about that.”
You hear the same story from everyone who knew him; Barry McDonnell didn’t try to make his students fit some mold of the perfect swing. His only goals were to refine what felt natural to his students and to instill in them the strongest mental game possible. It was clear that if he had any fears about working with Fowler, it was simply getting in the way of his talent.
Teasdall remembers McDonnell saying that “By the time Rickie's 20, if I do my job, he’ll have the perfect golfing mind and he won’t even know where he got it.”
The more quotes like that you hear about Barry, the more he feels like a mystical Bagger Vance kind of character. He was the wise old man under the shady tree that knew exactly what was going to happen but had the restraint to let you find out for yourself.
“Barry taught him the feel of the game, not the mechanics,” says Rickie’s father, Rod.
While many players and instructors will stand on the range and work on swing positions for hours, McDonnell said he and Fowler would work most on shaping golf shots. Not only did it teach Rickie about how his own swing worked, it kept the young student from getting bored out of his mind.
McDonnell described it to GolfChannel.com this way in 2009:
“It might be the 18th hole at Augusta. 'We need a cut here, can you do it?' He would always say, 'Yeah, I can do it.' And I’d tell him I knew he could do it. Or it might be the 13th hole at Augusta, where you needed to hit a draw around the corner. He loved the challenge of that. It got his juices going. I told him you have to love the pressure of having to make a shot. I think all great players like that.”
Hitting balls every day and taking constant lessons certainly doesn’t come without a cost, as the Fowlers quickly realized. It was Rod who came up with the idea of trading sand from his hauling company for range balls. After that deal was brokered, Rickie was a fixture at the range, building a swing only he and Barry McDonnell really understood.
By the time Rickie's 20, if I do my job, he’ll have the perfect golfing mind and he won’t even know where he got it.
“The joke was always that they might go through a whole lesson and only say five words to each other,” Joe Skovron remembers. Rickie might hit balls for 15 minutes and get nothing more than a mumble from Barry, which Rickie would return.
“But they knew what each other was saying,” Rod says. “They had a funny way of communicating.”
It wasn’t long before people in the area started asking Barry about the names of any prospects he might be working with. His reply?
“Well, there’s one. But he’s only eleven. You’ll know his name in time.”
Working with McDonnell, Fowler was a scratch player by age 12. He still made plenty of big numbers, but he had the firepower to cancel them out with a lot more birdies.
Sometimes it was tough for people to believe that the tiny kid with the long hair was out there breaking local golf records. But he wouldn’t be the one you’d hear about them from.
“He was always the quiet kid that showed up, beat everybody and didn’t talk about it,” Joe Skovron said. “He didn’t have to tell you how good he was.”
“I remember one story,” Rod starts. “I came in to talk to one of my customers I delivered to and I said, ‘Hey, Rickie shot 62 today and broke the CIF Championship record.’”
After Rod left, the group in the office had a laugh at the idea of that little kid shooting 62.
“The next day he called me and apologized because they had seen in the L.A. Times that sure enough, Rickie had shot 62,” Rod said. “They thought I was blowing smoke. They just couldn’t believe it.”
He was always the quiet kid that showed up, beat everybody and didn’t talk about it. He didn’t have to tell you how good he was.
Rod and Lynn haven’t changed a thing in Rickie’s bedroom. Hanging on one wall, there is a large, painted 6 next to a large, painted 2. They hang next to a shelf that supports a handful of trophies, an Arnold Palmer doll that’s still in the box, a lunchbox with supercross racer Jeremy McGrath on it and a few empty but unmistakable water bottles (like any golf kid, Fowler appears to have kept them from his first trip to The Masters).
“We got that 62 to congratulate him and then all of a sudden it was like every month there was another 62 and then another 62 and another,” Lynn says.
“My dad got to a point with him that he joked he wasn’t going to say congratulations to him until he won at Augusta,” Joe Skovron said. “He was tired of saying congratulations to him for every tournament.”
Winning locally is one thing, but knowing how to get into the right tournaments (and move up the right rankings) is how a junior player gets noticed. Today there are entire academies dedicated to building juniors a future in collegiate and professional golf, but that’s a route so few of the great ones have come from. Instead, they seem to have a knack for finding their own way. Jordan and Rory and Rickie were all born with freak-of-nature talent, but they all had to nurture it in the same way, finding the right competition to push themselves without crushing themselves.
Navigating the overwhelming system of junior and amateur golf was totally unfamiliar to Lynn and Rod, but it was something Rickie had been quietly researching since fourth grade, when he started crashing Valarie Skovron's “I Want to Play Golf in College” class, offered as part of Valley Junior Golf. Typically it was for middle and high schoolers, but as she was checking kids in one summer, she looked down and saw 9-year-old Rickie and asked him what he was doing there.
“He gave me this stone cold look and said ‘It’s never too young for me to know what I gotta do,’” she says. “He sat through the class, took notes. He learned everything.”
When Fowler turned 16, Lynn and Rod gave him a choice on how to proceed. One way or the other, he was going to have a job. The decision he had to make was whether he wanted that job to be practicing. (I didn’t say it was a tough decision.)
“I told him if you want golf to be your career during high school, then you have to spend at least four hours a day on it after school, like you would at a job,” Lynn says.
Fowler was a model employee, practicing as much as possible, rain or shine.
“The weather would be bad. There’d be nobody here and we’d want to close up,” Teasdall remembers. “But Rick’s still out there hitting balls.”
The setup may sound like a dream to a teenager stuck flipping burgers to make after-school money, but Fowler’s decision to go all-in on golf didn’t come without a trade off. Lynn remembers him giving up “his entire social life” for his game.
“The people he hung out with were the people at the driving range, which are all adults,” she says. “If he got to a golf course, it was with some 50-year-old retired guy that he had met at the range. … He sacrificed the going to the movies, the mall, having a big group of guys or the baseball team. He just wanted to play golf.”
Part of what makes Fowler’s success story so impressive is not only the fact that a local driving range turned him into a world beater. It’s also that he was able to navigate the intricacies of junior, amateur, college and professional golf largely on his own. The overwhelming support of his parents was there, but he was the one driving the ship (even if Lynn was the one driving the car from tournament to tournament).
The impressiveness of it didn’t strike his sister Taylor until her own college golf career at Cal State Fullerton had ended.
“I don’t know how he did it,” she says. “For me, playing high school and college golf, I was like, I need all the help I can get. For him to do it with none, is amazing.”
The weather would be bad. There’d be nobody here and we’d want to close up. But Rick’s still out there hitting balls.
When the internet first started popping up on home computers, Rickie was the one who was showing his parents how to keep track of junior golf rankings, explaining what he’d have to do to stand out and improve his ranking. By the time Fowler turned 17, one person that had taken notice was Alan Bratton, the assistant men’s golf coach at Oklahoma State.
“I had seen a lot of his scores in smaller tournaments and his name just stood out, the way it was spelled a little differently,” Bratton says. “And some of the websites that had his results had a picture of him and he’s just a striking, different-looking kid. … Even in recruiting, I’d have a plan to watch him play a few holes and then go watch someone else. But there’s something about him I couldn’t leave. He’s just fun to watch.”
Bratton got his first in-person look at Fowler in 2005, at the Western Junior in Michigan. At the time, there weren’t many coaches that had heard about the scores Fowler had been putting up in the California desert and Bratton wasn’t interested in tipping his hand to other recruiters or to Fowler.
“I was watching from fairways over, trying to hide in the bushes,” he recalls.
His stealth was commendable, but it didn’t end up doing much good. Fowler shot 65 in the final round to win.
“By the end of the tournament, everybody knew who he was,” Bratton says.
Not long after, Fowler became the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, a title he held for 37 weeks. Bratton went back to OSU head coach Mike Holder and said he’d found the best player in the country.
“Every year there’s someone who is the best player in the country,” Bratton says. “But Rickie wasn’t an 'every year' player. He was special.”
During Rickie's time at Oklahoma State, Lynn only visited twice – the day Rickie moved in and the day he moved out. But it doesn’t take being there to see what the place means to him.
“He tells me that he lives and breaths Oklahoma State and I believe him,” she says. “It’s almost like he was born to be there.”
On the surface, convincing an 18-year-old to leave Southern California for Stillwater, Oklahoma, seems like a tough sell. It wasn’t the case for Bratton and the team at OSU. Along with everything else he’d been researching, Fowler had read all about the history of the OSU golf program and the success other California kids had already had there.
“He’s not your typical Southern California kid,” Bratton says. “This is a lot like home for him, I think. … The motorcycle connection probably helped. Motocross is big around here, so when he came to Stillwater, I think he was pretty comfortable right away.”
Fowler has always played golf with a fearlessness that many say came from his other childhood passion, riding motorcycles with his father. The first time Fowler ever needed training wheels was on a dirt bike, around the age of 2 ½.
“We even took those off pretty quickly,” Rod says.
When he wasn’t playing golf, Rickie, Rod and Taylor would take trips out to the desert to rip around on their motorcycles.
“Everybody kind of said he was like my shadow out there,” Rod says. “Everywhere I went, he’d go. He was also our guy that would jump everything. We’d find things and he wasn’t afraid to hit them.”
His motorcycle hobby faded after a crash in high school served as a reality check to what could happen to his golf game. Fowler broke three bones in his ankle and his left wrist. The accident happened just before tryouts for his high school golf team.
“He came to me and said ‘I think we need to sell my motorcycle,’” Rod says. “I was a little bummed. But (laughs) now I can see where it all made sense.”
Of course the motorcycle habit was gone but not forgotten. Bratton remembers some proof Fowler sent on the Fourth of July after his freshman year at OSU.
“It was a picture of him on his motorcycle, about 30 feet up in the air,” Bratton said. “It just said, ‘Hey coach, Happy Fourth of July.’”
The fearlessness that Fowler played with immediately reminded Bratton of someone he’d played against during his own four-year All-American career at OSU: Phil Mickelson. Because of that, he suggested that Lynn Fowler contact Mary Mickelson, Phil’s mother, just to learn about Phil’s childhood, college career, search for representation and more.
“Not very many people can relate to that kind of talent, or anyone that plays at that level,” he says. “I felt like I’d be able to help Rickie with the learning curve for a while, but I also felt like he was going to run off and do some things that I didn’t have any experience with.”
Fowler left Stillwater after two years with the Cowboys and it didn’t take long for him to start doing those things.
The clothes make the man. In Rickie’s case, the clothes make the man a truckload of money.
When Fowler showed up on the PGA TOUR in 2009, his loud outfits and long hair made him look like he was designed in the lab of a marketing focus group.
In a sport defined by traditions and pleats, he became the vision of Golf After Tiger. He was young, fearless and courteous – and fans and sponsors signed up in waves.
By the way, this isn’t a gimmick or something he did for marketing purposes (although it certainly didn’t hurt). The clothes and hair have been there all along. In 2006, Fowler was selected to play in the AJGA’s Canon Cup, a team competition that pits the best juniors in the West from the best in the East. Lynn had originally planned to travel to the tournament with Rickie, but when Rod was injured in a last-minute motorcycle accident, they decided to let the 17-year-old travel to the event alone.
With no parents to talk him out of it, Fowler showed up with customized head and wrist bands, as well as dyed blue hair, shaped into giant spikes. He even put blue glitter paint on his golf shoes to support the West. Lynn and Rod still have all the gear from that day and many more tucked away in the secret attic in Rickie’s room, which Rickie’s grandparents turned into an informal warehouse – or museum – of his golf memorabilia.
The price of standing out, however, is worth noting. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. That kind of thing.
What makes professional golf such a unique professional sport is that each week only produces one winner. Young players in other sports can validate their performances with things like points or receptions or home runs. But in golf, success is much tougher to not only define, but explain to the general public. When a player is constantly visible, fans expect wins. It’s a wildly unfair system, but that’s what happens when someone like Tiger Woods does what Tiger Woods did. Plus… the internet.
In Fowler’s first PGA TOUR start as a pro, he finished T7 in Las Vegas. The next week, he lost in a playoff at the Frys.com Open. It took 64 more starts before he claimed his first win at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012.
Of course, it’s laughable to be anything but complimentary of a 23-year-old winning on the PGA TOUR. But when you think about what goes into that win, it’s easy to see how a talented young player can lose his way. Picture packing your bags 66 times and flying to 66 different cities. Playing 66 pro-ams and spending all of those nights in hotels and airports. Of course you are paid extravagantly and you are playing golf for a living, but on some level, you're still a competitive professional athlete falling short 66 times in a row. It’s a tough thing to keep perspective on, especially when you’re reading tweets, Instagram comments, hot-take columns – and eventually anonymous player polls – about being style over substance.
“I wouldn’t say that we were ever frustrated because he had so much success,” says caddie Joe Skovron. “We knew how young he was. We knew he was going to get there. We knew it was just a matter of time.”
“I think with a lot of that stuff, we’re a lot more patient than people outside of it. I think everyone else tends to get more frustrated than we do.”
Those successes included his memorable performance at the 2010 Ryder Cup and 16 top 10s in his first three seasons on TOUR. But instead of his first win becoming some sort of floodgates moment, he was still hampered by the problems of many other young players. Inconsistencies in his swing and his aggressive style of play resulted in too many big misses and bigger numbers. In 2013, he did not qualify for The TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and didn’t pass $2 million in earnings, the only time in his career he’s failed to do so.
While hitting balls after missing the cut at The Open Championship at Muirfield, Fowler knew it was time for something to change. After two years of self-diagnosing his swing problems, he was ready to ask for help. After Butch Harmon had watched his pupils tee off – of course, his most famous student at the time, Phil Mickelson, would go on to win – Rickie asked him if he’d take a look at his swing.
Barry McDonnell passed away in May of 2011, just a few months after Fowler was named the PGA TOUR’s Rookie of the Year.
A very informal memorial service was held shortly after, with friends, family and former students gathering at the Murrieta Valley Golf Range to pay tribute and tell stories. A reporter on-site captured a few of them, including McDonnell’s work with Kevan Holliday, a junior player from Murrieta that who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 16.
“Barry made sure all his lessons were free,” Holliday’s mother recalled. “I would send the envelope with money and he just started sending them back to me.”
After Fowler left for Oklahoma State, he only saw McDonnell a few times a year. But that didn’t lessen the impact of his coach’s death.
“Barry had an impact on Rickie that I don’t think anyone can imagine,” Valarie Skovron says. “At the memorial, Rickie was standing off to the side and I walked up to him and asked if he was OK and said, ‘You know Barry loved you.’ And Rickie just hugged me and wouldn’t let go.”
For almost 15 years, McDonnell was the only coach Fowler had ever worked with. That had to be what made the thought of a new instructor such a difficult pill to swallow. But in his mysterious way, McDonnell had already seen that one coming, too.
Before he died, McDonnell had mentioned to Teasdall that Butch Harmon would be a good fit for Fowler in the future. Looking at it now, the parallels are obvious. Just like McDonnell, Harmon prefers molding to overhauling. The difference is that he has the experience of taking players to World No. 1.
True to McDonnell’s way of teaching, Teasdall didn’t want to intervene. Instead, he let Rickie forge his own path, eventually winding up exactly where he was supposed to be.
The first time he worked with Harmon, on that range in Scotland, Fowler didn’t look good.
“At first he said, ‘Are you trying to make a fool of me out here?’” Harmon says. “I said, ‘I think you already did that with the scores you shot the first 36 holes.’”
But things quickly took hold. A taller stance got rid of the flatness and re-routing Fowler picked up on the range as a kid. On the downswing, he got rid of the “stuck” position that causes big misses and stress on his lower back. It didn’t take long for Fowler and Harmon to click on the course and off.
“He’s even got me calling people dude,” Harmon says.
The consistency that has come with a retooled swing has given Fowler more control of his golf ball than he’s ever had. Pair that with the all-around growth that comes from spending more than six years on the PGA TOUR and you can see why Fowler has become a staple inside the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking.
“He knows where his misses are going, he knows the golf courses,” Joe Skovron says. “He’s learned how to save a shot here and there and play away from a pin here and there. He’s developed all of that.”
The working relationship of Skovron and Fowler has also continually gotten better, something Skovron credits to time spent with who else? McDonnell.
“I got to spend a lot of time with Barry in the last few years of his life and I learned a lot,” he says. “I was always a technical guy. It’s not always about that. I learned how he worked with Rick and I think it taught me a lot about how to work with Rick myself. He really understood him and how he ticks.”
It was the combination of all of these things that made Sunday at THE PLAYERS possible. And it was Sunday at THE PLAYERS that paved the way for everything since.
The whole “overrated” storyline is pretty overrated. But there’s no denying that it was at the forefront each time Fowler stepped in front of a media microphone during THE PLAYERS Championship.
“I laughed at it,” Fowler said of hearing about Sports Illustrated's anonymous player poll, in which he tied Ian Poulter in the category of most overrated player on TOUR.
After he fired a first-round 69 at THE PLAYERS, Fowler faced four questions in a row about the poll. Each time, as he would the rest of the week, he refused to take the bait or discuss having any extra motivation.
Q: There's been a survey that's been around for 10 years now; did this last one irritate you at all?
Q: I don't think you've ever been anything that drew any criticism from the time you've been out here, and that's kind of the first?
A: It's fine by me. I'm going to try and play as well as I can this week and I'm going to take care of my business.
Q: If they're calling you overrated, does it mean maybe we overrate wins?
A: I have no clue.
Q: Is winning overrated is what I'm getting at? Is consistency not rated?
A: I guess Top-5s in four Majors aren't that good. ... Like I said, I'll take care of my business and I'll be just fine.
Fowler took care of that business in Rounds 1 and 2, entering the weekend in a share of third place, just two off the lead. But a rocky start to Round 3 dropped him down the leaderboard and after Saturday’s action, a crowded pack pushed him outside the top 10 (although a back-nine 34 kept him within three shots of the lead).
One of the signature elements of THE PLAYERS Championship in years past has been its Mother’s Day finish. During the final round, the grounds at TPC Sawgrass are covered with pink shirts and hats and the tournament team even hops in tiny motor boats and replaces all the flowers on the island between the 16th and 17th green with new pink ones.
Players often help support the “Pink Out” by wearing pink during the final round. It’s why you don’t see Fowler wearing orange in any of last year’s highlights.
But on Sunday morning, Mother’s Day was the last thing Lynn Fowler wanted her son thinking about. The two, along with Rickie’s sister Taylor, had already celebrated Mother’s Day on Friday night with dinner and gifts and cards. Lynn and Taylor were going to be flying back to California on Sunday afternoon and before doing so, Lynn wanted to make sure Rickie was in the right frame of mind. She grabbed her phone and started typing a text.
“Thank you for Mother’s Day,” she started. She gets choked up when recalling the story. “But today is your day. Go out, kill it and do this for you.”
“I was trying to take all the emotion out of the day for him,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be about me, I wanted it to be about him.”
During a 2015 practice round at THE PLAYERS, Rickie Fowler and Joe Skovron were standing on the back of the tee box at TPC Sawgrass' eighth hole. It’s a hole that doesn’t get mentioned among the course’s most famous, but the long par 3 is always among the most difficult. On that day, playing back into the wind, Fowler decided that a choked-down 3-wood, one with just a hint of a cut, would be the best way to attack the green.
It was that shot he was thinking about five days later when he was standing in the 16th fairway, ball slightly above his feet, figuring out how to play his second shot into the famous par 5.
Fowler took aim at the left side of the green and hoped to see his ball drift lazily toward the center. Instead, it started just right of its intended line, flirting with the water right of the green. The ball held its line just enough to catch a piece of banked fringe and kicked left, settling less than 3 feet from the hole.
“If that ball just kicks straight, Johnny, it could go in the water,” Gary Koch said on the NBC telecast.
You can play this game with any tournament a year after the fact, but that was hardly the only “if” that played a role in Fowler’s victory.
If Bill Haas hadn’t missed two 3-footers on Sunday, he would have won outright.
If Rickie doesn’t get a perfect read from Derek Fathauer’s putt on 18, he wouldn’t have seen the slight break to the right.
If Sergio Garcia had made one of the 15(!) putts he missed inside 10 feet for the week, he would have won outright.
There are a thousand more “ifs” that make up the butterfly effect that leads to any victory on the PGA TOUR. But then you start thinking about the things that did happen – the things that Fowler made happen – and you can see why, even during the telecast, people felt like it was meant to be.
He played holes 15 through 18 in 11 shots, something that’s never been done.
He became the first winner on TOUR to play the last four holes in 5 under since hole-by-hole stats started in 1983.
He played the 17th three times on Sunday and only needed six shots and less than 20 feet worth of putts to do it.
He eagled 16 for the first time in his career at THE PLAYERS.
He birdied 18 to get into a playoff – the hole he’d played worse statistically than any other on the PGA TOUR since his career began.
Individually, any of these would have made the 2015 PLAYERS a great story. Together, it’s still tough to comprehend and explain. Asked after the round if he’d ever played a stretch of golf like it, Fowler went back to his junior golf days.
“When I won the Western Junior,” he says, referencing the week Bratton first watched him (from fairways over) birdie four of the last five to win by a shot, the week that really started his career at Oklahoma State.
Lynn and Taylor didn’t see the shot at No. 16, but they heard about it from the text messages that started trickling in. They were already at Jacksonville International Airport when Rickie arrived at the 17th green for the first time Sunday. His first birdie at the island green was what sent them scrambling for a way to get back to the course. Grabbing a courtesy car that had already been discarded at the airport by a departing player, they drove back to TPC Sawgrass and arrived in time to see Rickie outlast Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia in a playoff.
Joe Skovron was there to see it all from inside the ropes. He saw the same guy doing the same things he had done as a teenager in Southern California.
“He’s really calm in a moment like that,” he says. “If he’s not, then he doesn’t show it. I’m sure there is a lot going on inside, he just doesn’t show it.”
Rod Fowler was at home in Murrieta. He had played golf that morning and checked the scores before he left the course; Rickie was five back. By the end of the day, Rod was watching on TV and screaming so loudly he was worried the neighbors had heard him.
Bill Teasdall was in his packed pro shop at the Murrieta Valley Golf Range.
“Everyone’s calling me, everyone’s texting me, saying ‘Do you think he’ll do it? He just made another two on 17!'” Teasdall says. “I finally had to turn my phone off so I could watch the tournament.”
Butch Harmon was in the booth doing commentary for Sky Sports.
“That was probably the best hour and a half of television we had last year,” he says. “That kid…” he continued, trailing off into a comment about Fowler's confidence that was best-suited for off-air.
And Barry McDonnell was there, too. He was right there with Fowler, challenging his star student to hit the big shot in the big moment.
It’s almost been a year since that Sunday afternoon and the change in Fowler is visible.
He’s taken the confidence of that day and turned into three more victories around the world. Along the way, he’s shown a comfort level on Sunday afternoons that wasn’t there early in his career.
“THE PLAYERS was almost like getting another ‘first’ win,” he says. “That’s what jump started me to get more.”
Harmon has seen it in him. Skovron has seen it in him. The confidence is there at a level that’s making everything else fall in line.
“He knows what he’s doing in the heat of pressure. He has total control of his golf ball now, more than he ever has,” Harmon says. “He’s not afraid of anything.”
With more confidence comes more results. With more results comes more proof. With more proof comes more confidence. It’s the cycle that makes a good player a great player.
“I’ve told a lot of my friends that I really think he’s going to do some things to blow people’s minds out there,” Rod Fowler says. “I really think that was part of it. The way he handled that day at THE PLAYERS.”
As much as things have changed in Rickie’s game, the driving range he came from has stayed the same.
“There are photos of Rick everywhere,” Skovron says, “But that’s the only thing that’s changed. It’s still the same old shop and the same people. It’s still a throwback place where you can go play golf and talk trash and hang out. It’s the best.”
You’ll see twice as many kids in bright colors and Puma hats at THE PLAYERS this year. That’s something Valley Junior Golf in Murrieta knows plenty about.
“You come to our junior golf tournaments now and there’s Rickie orange and flat billed hats everywhere. All of that’s here,” Valarie Skovron says. “But those kids are also asking questions about how he was, what he practiced, how he behaved.”
“He made it real for the kids here. That they can start at a driving range and take that dream and make it a reality.”
It became a reality because the people around him knew when to help out and when to hold off.
“Barry would just say ‘He’s a natural. Let’s just let him find his way.’” Lynn says.
And on that perfect Sunday in Florida, he found it. Fowler had already become one of the faces of an entire sport, someone little kids dress like and look up to. But that afternoon unlocked everything else.
“I wasn’t expecting any of this at all. What he’s done is amazing,” Lynn says. “But when I can calculate everything backwards now, I can see that it was in the plan. He was blessed with a gift.”