Rickie Fowler: Full speed ahead
Note: This story appeared in the Aug. 23, 2008 issue of Golfweek
Rickie Fowler doesn’t play by the book. One of his favorite memories from last year’s Walker Cup at hallowed Royal County Down GC, Northern Ireland, has nothing to do with his 3-1 record that helped lead the U.S. to a one-point victory.
It comes from a practice round.
“My teammates and I were hitting pitch shots to a green elevated 6 feet or so,” said Oklahoma State’s Fowler, who this spring became the first freshman to win the Ben Hogan Award as college golf’s outstanding player. “They’re all hitting bump-and-runs up the hill with 54- and 58-degree wedges, and I was there opening up a 64-degree wedge and hitting these high, spinner shots. The Irish spectators were staring at me with this, ‘You’re not supposed to be hitting that shot’ look.”
The 19-year-old isn’t just independent-minded but independent, period. Fowler started the game at age 3; four years later, he began lessons at the Murrieta Valley (Calif.) Golf Range with teaching pro Barry McDonnell. These days, the rising star – a two-time winner in his first season at Oklahoma State, as well as back-to-back champion of the Sunnehanna Amateur and noisemaker at the ’08 U.S. Open – mainly coaches himself, stopping in to see his mentor a handful of times annually. As an ex-motocross rider, Fowler knows about piloting his own ship and trusting in his abilities.
“We never used a video camera; Barry’s just gone with impact and ball flight,” said Fowler, who has seen his swing on tape a few times since starting college. “I think that helped in the long run, because I’m not worried about where I need to be in certain parts of my swing or any stuff like that. It’s a lot less stressful when you’re out there and not hitting the ball well.”
That’s been a rarity for Fowler, whose success, he says, owes much to the shotmaking variety he learned from McDonald on the range.
“We’d get winds up to 35 mph, so I grew up hitting different shots,” he said. “Low draws to hold it against the wind, holding a cut into the wind – Barry taught me to flight the ball really well. You have to know how to control your ball and what it’s going to do out here, especially in the winds at OSU.”
OSU coach Mike McGraw said Fowler doesn’t need much coaching on campus, either.
“Rickie’s a little bit of a throwback,” McGraw said. “He’s more like a kid that would have grown up in my generation, in the 1970s. . . . (McDonald) has done a good enough job of teaching Rickie to know his own golf swing, what works for him, that he’s able to correct himself, especially in tournaments.”
As for his early college success, Fowler pointed to his autonomous nature.
“I’ve always been an independent person, and it didn’t feel like a huge change, except that my family and friends aren’t there,” he said. “That’s a bit of a bummer, but this is what I want to do for my future, which is play on the (PGA) Tour.
“Go to school, do some homework and play golf every day? That’s pretty awesome.”
Stay aggressive: “I’ll hit driver off the deck if I have to,” Fowler said. “I definitely go at more flags than most guys, and I think some of my aggressiveness, especially with the driver and the putter, comes from riding motocross growing up.
“I try to have a great time on the course. I don’t get too stressed or tense out there. There are plenty of birdies to be had. When I’m hitting the ball good, I’m not going to let up. Some guys will make some birdies and then start protecting their score. I’m going to see how low I can go.”
OSU coach Mike McGraw also credits Fowler’s go-for-broke attitude to his days in BMX.
“You have to commit in that area to, ‘This is what I want to go do, and I have to do it aggressively.’
If you don’t commit, you get injured pretty easily,” McGraw says of motocross. “He brought that attitude of committing to what you’re doing to golf. That’s part of the reason he makes some big numbers, but also why he’ll follow a triple with three or four birdies. He’s very aggressive and fun to watch.”
Down the line: Fowler describes his full swing as “a little different from most tour swings,” as it can get laid off at the top. When his transition becomes too quick, the club tends to drop inside and leads to snap-hooks. He largely has overcome this problem by “getting more over the ball” with his body and swinging more down-the-line to produce a straighter ball flight.
“I think that’s the thing that’s helped my game the most, getting to where it’s easier for me to hit the ball from left-to-right than right-to-left,” he said. “That’s usually what I work on at the range, getting to where I can hit a cut shot easily.”
He uses a few practice drills to this end. One is the well-known glove-under-the-left-armpit to keep from getting laid off; another has him putting a stick on the ground inside the target line, forcing Fowler to come down-the-line or just over-the-top to avoid making contact with the stick. The third is to put a ball behind and inside the one he will hit and another in front and ahead of it (pictured, detail in inset).
“It forces me to swing across a little bit to miss those two (extra) balls,” Fowler said. “I exaggerate it on the range to feel like I’m coming way over-the-top when I feel like I’m laying it off too much and coming too much from the inside.”
Ball drill: To combat his inside-out move, Fowler will place three balls on the ground: one ball to hit, one inside and behind his target ball and one outside and beyond the target ball.
His goal is to contact only the target ball, which prevents him from swinging too far from the inside. If he drops the club too inside on the downswing, he will hit all three balls.
On course for success: “I don’t really have a practice routine; most of my practice takes place on the golf course,” Fowler said. “I’m not a guy who’s gonna bang a lot of balls. If I start hitting the ball bad and see something I need to work on, I might go to the range after the round, or the next day. But for the most part, I’ll play. You can’t take your range swing to the course.
“Mostly, if I’m in a (noncompetitive) round and hit a bad chip, I’ll throw another ball down and try it again. In a practice round, I may drop three balls and go around to different spots on the green to get different feels. But I’ll never spend a lot of time around the practice greens.”
Iron switch: Only this summer did Fowler remove his trusty 2-iron from his bag in favor of a hybrid-like, 17-degree utility iron. (Fowler doesn’t carry a 3-iron, bending his 4-iron 2-degrees strong and his 5-iron 1-degree strong to eliminate distance gaps.) He had struggled to find a way to keep the ball down with utility clubs, as his swing generates above-average spin rates, and used his 2-iron largely as a layup club on short, tight par 4s.
“I realized that I really needed to be able to hit high, soft 230- to 240-yard shots to attack par 5s,” Fowler said. “With the (utility iron), I can do that.”
The flight’s the thing: “Ball flight is the biggest thing with wedges, because you need to be able to control distances really well,” Fowler said. “On the range at OSU, we have pins that range from 50-110 yards, with six or so flags with a 5-foot circle around each.
The main thing is that I’m trying to be consistent with ball flight with certain shots. For the most part, I don’t want to hit it too low or too high – it shouldn’t skip off the green or spin back too far.”
The other key, Fowler noted, is not to swing at full throttle.
“Unless it’s downwind and you’re looking to spin the ball, you should never swing hard with a wedge,” Fowler said. “Those are your scoring clubs, and it’s all about feel, comfort and conditions. Barry and I worked hard when I was younger on building as many options as possible.”
Cheater club: Fowler’s 64-degree wedge isn’t a specialty club: He uses it as his basic weapon from the bunker.
“I won’t use my 59-degree out of bunkers, because it doesn’t have too much bounce – it’s mostly more of a tight-lie club,” he said. “The 64-degree has a bit more bounce (6-8 degrees, depending on how he sets it down). It’s great for short-sided shots; the ball comes out really soft.”
His college coach, Mike McGraw, calls the 64-degree Fowler’s “cheater club,” per the player. Fowler enjoys “spinning shots back that aren’t supposed to spin back” as well as opening the face on flop shots. But there are more practical reasons he uses the 64-degree club.
“My bunker play is fairly straightforward – like a lot of players, I open the clubface and just blast the ball out,” he said. “The (added loft of the) 64-degree wedge takes some of the sidespin off my cut-across movement. The 54-degree wedge, which I’ll use on longer bunker shots, spins a little to the right, but the 64’s pretty straightforward.”
Hey, Fowler: ‘Noonan!’: “During practice rounds, I’ll mostly just hit 20-footers to get the speed down, since you rarely know exactly where the pins are going to be,” Fowler said. “The speed’s the biggest thing for me. If I’m putting well, there’s no reason to practice except to gauge the green speed.”
At amateur tournaments, Fowler enjoys practice putting and chipping games with other players. Little
do they know how much his history in these little competitions back at Murrieta Valley Golf Range prepared him.
“It was match-play, and the guys would heckle you, trying to get you to hit bad shots,” he said. “It turned out to be really good practice in concentrating, with everyone hooting and hollering at you.”
Right on line: Though Fowler says he doesn’t consider himself to be a great putter, he has heard from enough competitors who’ve told him they “hate it when he putts good” to realize that it’s indeed a strength.
“They hate it because it means I’ll go real low or save myself from a really bad number,” he said.
Fowler’s emphasis, as with all of his clubs, is to be sure that he’s properly aligned and starting the ball on line. He picks an aiming point for a 10-foot putt – say, right edge. Using a tee or stick, he draws a straight line on the green from that spot back to his putter. He then sets his blade square to that line. Next, he places tees on either side of the putter (pictured left, in middle) to ensure that he hits the sweet spot; otherwise, he clips a tee. Eighteen inches in front of the ball on his chosen line, he puts two tees to either side of the line (pictured left, bottom); these tees are spaced slightly more than a ball-width apart. If his putt goes between these two tees, he hasn’t pushed or pulled it.
“I’ll sometimes hit putts that way for a half-hour, just making sure that my feet are aligned and I’m stroking the ball solid and starting it where I want,” Fowler said.