Is Rickie Ready?

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After a dramatic free-fall from the top of the golf pecking order Fowler flew high with Thursday's opening round of 62 in the U.S. Open. M. James Ward examines the resurrection of one of the game's most endearing personalities and whether he can sustain his play and secure his first major win.
Posted on
June 16, 2023
by
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
US Open - Rickie Fowler
(George Walker IV/AP)

LOS ANGELES, CA. For those who are fans of Rickie Fowler the best way to see him during weekend telecasts of professional golf tournaments was waiting for the various State Farm commercials in which he appears. Seeing Fowler actually playing and contending was just not possible.

For the last few years seeing Fowler actually play was akin to catching glimpses of Loch Ness or Big Foot.

That changed in a big-time way with yesterday's first round play at the 123rd U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. Playing in the morning wave of players and starting on the 10th hole, Rickie broke the 18-hole low round U.S. Open scoring mark of 63 with a sensational 62. The round included a record 10 birdies -- also a single U.S. Open record for one round.

One only needs to rewind the tape to understand how far Fowler had fallen.

At last year's U.S. Open at The Country Club, Rickie was the first alternate and was on site at Brookline hoping one player would dop out and provide him a slot to play. It did not happen. "That was a long Thursday, last year," said Fowler. The absence from the national championship of American golf marked the second consecutive year he did not play.

The 34-year-old now shares the lead with Xander Schauffele, who matched the score finishing play 20 minutes after Fowler. And the score ties the all-time lowest round in any major shared with South African Branden Grace who broke the 63 barrier first at the 2017 Open Championship.

No doubt conditions for scoring were favorable with overcast skies, mild temperatures and no wind to speak of. 37 total players bettered par on the 7,252-yard par-70 George C. Thomas design.

"I knew there was birdies to be made out here," Fowler added. "But you have to drive it well and get the ball in position first. Did that, and from there just managed our way around really well."

The opening rounds of Fowler and Schauffele harkened back to 1980 when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf both scored 63 in the opening round at Baltusrol. Interestingly, Nicklaus missed a three-foot putt at the 18th hole that year and could have set the scoring mark of 62.

Fowler's 15-year professional career took an unexpected nosedive over the last few years. He fell to 182nd in the Official World Golf Rankings following the 2021-2022 PGA Tour season and it appeared his presence at the top of golf's pecking order was more of a past event than a current reality.

In 2014 Fowler finished in the top five in all of the major events in a single year -- tying for second in two of them. His feat is something only accomplished by Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. However, each of the aforementioned men have won a major -- Fowler has not. Rickie did win The Players Championship in 2015 and tied for fifth in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where he opened play with a 65.

How bad had matters gone for Fowler? He has not played in The Masters since 2020. His best finish since 2020 was a T8 at the 2021 PGA Championship. Since 2020 he had the dubious distinction of having not played in more majors (8) than in ones he actually teed it up. Coming in to Los Angeles, Fowler had played in only four of the last ten majors.

Losing one's ability to play at the highest of levels is not a rare matter in professional golf. Fowler need only see the big-time fall of close friend Jordan Spieth who went through a prolonged period of doubt and uncertainty. But being able to dig oneself out of the abyss is something that requires a dogged tenacity and to his credit Fowler took on the difficult task with a keen desire to return to the elite level.

Rickie reunited with teacher Butch Harmon and the painstaking process of building a swing that could handle the rigors of playing at the elite level were started.

He started the 2022-23 season in September with a tie for sixth in the Fortinet Championship in Northern California, and slowly began seeing positive results. The five-time PGA Tour winner is still searching for his first victory since the 2019 WM Phoenix Open, but thanks to six top-10s, he has managed to climb back inside the top 60 of the OWGR to avoid going through U.S. Open qualifying for a third straight year.

Admitting that he didn’t have the best practice sessions leading into the first U.S. Open in Los Angeles in 75 years, Fowler, who grew up in Murrieta, Calif. (he now resides in Jupiter, Fla.), found something that clicked on Thursday following what he called an average warm-up.

No hole epitomized his day more than the par-5 eighth, his 17th of the day. His drive found the barranca, but he managed to hit a pitching wedge to the right of the bridge to a comfortable yardage for his third. He stuck his 104-yard wedge approach to 13 feet to set up his final birdie.

“It's definitely been long and tough,” said Fowler of his resurgence. “A lot longer being in that situation than you'd ever want. But it makes it so worth it having gone through that and being back where we are now.”

The issue for Fowler is now understanding that one round is just that - one round. More will need to happen and the setting of a U.S. Open can bring to the forefront plenty of crucial moments that Fowler will now have to face with 54 holes to play.

Always a fan favorite, Fowler has had to deal with envy from players who often cited him as being overrated and more of a commercial presence than an elite player of note.

A round of 62 shows Rickie still has chapters to write in his professional career. Going forward will mean understanding the depth of what he has faced and how situations can change. How fitting it would be for a California guy to strike gold in his home State with an impressive win.

Yes, Fowler flew high for the first round. The bigger question is does he have the wings to see it through for 72 holes?

"There's still plenty of golf to be played," he said. "It's going to be tough tomorrow afternoon. But at least got out of the gate and we're off to, like I said, a good start."

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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