PINEHURST, N.C. – At first blush, one might think whizkid Rickie Fowler is trapped inside a pretty pedestrian season. In 18 events, he has finished no better than third. He has missed seven cuts, and endured three weekends off in a stretch of five starts this spring before finally getting his game back on track in Memphis last weekend.
A forgettable campaign? Most would say so. Fowler, ever the optimist, doesn’t quite see it that way. Maybe that’s the perspective one gets as a vibrant, upbeat 25-year-old who views his world through orange-tinted glasses.
You see, Fowler’s goal entering this season was to show up Sunday in contention at the big events. He did so at Augusta – where he also shot 67 Saturday – and woke on Sunday with a chance to win. He carded 73 and tied for fifth. Here at the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, he’s at it again. Like a kid outside an ice cream store, he just keeps hanging around.
On Saturday, following two days of a very un-U.S. Open-like red-number assault, Pinehurst No. 2 decided to punch back, and boy did she connect. The field scoring average was just under 74, and Fowler was one of a select few who had an answer for the dryer, firmer conditions. His 3-under 67, which included five birdies, tied Erik Compton for the day’s low round.
“The main goal going into the year was to be ready to play Augusta and be ready for the majors, and go contend in the majors,” Fowler said. “If you look back at this year and I’m sitting there and in September and October, I look back and I was in contention in all four majors – and I obviously have two more to go – I really wouldn’t care about what happened in the other tournaments, just because my main goals were to be ready for the majors. And to contend here.
“So I put myself in that position at Augusta, and I’ve done that this week.”
On Saturday he did it with a sizzling putter (24 putts), some timely ballstriking that answered some shaky driving, and some good old-fashioned common sense. There are times at a U.S. Open where you just have to show up at the door of the nurse’s office, hold your nose, open wide and accept a heaping teaspoon of nasty-tasting castor oil. Though accepting bogey goes against every living fiber of a Tour pro’s being, at the U.S. Open it is a must.
So when Fowler knocked his ball over the green at the par-3 ninth and it came to rest in a sandy hole, he was content to take out a putter and rap the ball up a slope anywhere onto the green, not worrying about knocking it close, fully knowing he might be looking at 15-20 feet to save his par. He made 4 and moved on.
“I’ve stayed away from making big numbers,” he said. “You still have to be aggressive, even when you’re trying to play safely, to assure that you’re going to be safe from any more mistakes from there.”
Playing it safe doesn’t quite jive with Fowler’s swashbuckling image. He raced dirt bikes as a kid, and he frequently is shown performing some daredevil stunt with his Red Bull team when he’s not jumping off some second-story rooftop into a pool, making sure to film every second for his legions of doting, dedicated fans in Twitterdom and InstagramLand.
There certainly aren’t any other players with but one lone PGA Tour trophy (2012 Wells Fargo) who can command the spotlight the way Fowler does. But inside his 25-year-old body lies an old soul, and the way he goes about his business, conducts himself, promotes golf and his Tour, and tends to his growing fan base earns respect from all corners of the circuit.
And then there’s the Fowler fashion craze, the “What’s he wearing today?” buzz that emanates loudly across the gallery ropes. There isn’t a tournament he visits that isn’t filled with scores of Little Rickies in bright colors and Puma caps, not to mention swooning young schoolgirls.
They won’t be disappointed Sunday, when he’ll show up and try to win his national Open “in straight-up orange.” Hogan never tried that.
He made a bold statement on Day 1 of this Open by honoring the late Payne Stewart, Pinehurst’s 1999 champion, showing up to the practice tee for his opening round sporting his own version of Stewart’s famed plus-fours. He even dashed off a text to Chelsea Stewart, Payne’s daughter, telling her he hoped she enjoyed watching the tribute as much as he enjoyed pulling it off, described as “walking around with her dad.”
“It was definitely special,” he said Saturday.
Fowler’s play at this week’s Open has been special, too. He had but two top 10s in his first 16 starts at the majors, but clearly he is starting to figure things out and rise to the challenge presented by golf’s biggest stages. No offense to Kaymer, but it’s a safe bet that Sunday’s spirited crowd at Pinehurst will be very pro-Fowler as they watch the day’s last pairing. If it’s not Phil Mickelson they’ll get, well, they’ll get the next best thing. His little buddy.
Fowler even has Mickelson’s flair for the dramatic. He could have backed off his birdie putt at 17 after a loud roar arose from an Ian Poulter birdie at the nearby 16th; instead, a devilish, playful Fowler seized the moment by bearing down and knocking in a birdie of his own.
“I just thought it would be cool to get a roar going back to 16,” he said, smiling.
For as bad as Fowler’s season has been at times, he looks very much in control through 54 holes at Pinehurst. His teacher, Butch Harmon, with whom Fowler has worked since December, said Fowler’s swing is as good as he’s seen it. Fowler no longer has to rely so much on his timing and athleticism, which would get challenging when the heat got turned up. His swing is shorter, simpler, and less handsy.
In a word, it’s effective.
“I think Rickie Fowler is swinging the club as well as anyone out there,” said Colin Montgomerie, on the grounds this week as an analyst for Golf Channel. “If he gets off to a flyer (on Sunday), which he needs to do, we could have a game on our hands.”
Sunday, final group of the U.S. Open, now that will be a new experience for orange superkid. But if speedy race cars and motorbikes and crazy stunts don’t scare Fowler, then 18 holes at Pinehurst No. 2 ought to be a piece of cake. Forget all those mediocre results; it’s major time – go time – and Fowler is right where he wants to be.