While wandering through the endless scroll, I’ve come across a meme about Rickie Fowler a few times: on one half of the frame, labeled “before kids” is his early 2010s headshot, complete with an aggressively branded flat brim and flowy High School Musical Zac Efron hair, a picture of the slick bronze Cobra blades that he played a little more than two years ago, and a picture of his old flatstick: the famous orange-filled clone of Tiger Woods’s Scotty Cameron Newport 2. In the other half, (“after kids”) is Rickie as he looks now: sunglasses hiding his tired eyes, an unironic mustache, thicker cavity back irons, and the hideous, now-famous lead tape-slathered Odyssey Jailbird mallet he’s brought to prominence.
I will not put the blame for this aesthetic decline on Fowler’s young daughter, but the point is taken: Rickie was cool and shiny and sleek and now he’s not. A little less than a year ago, his ranking had fallen to 185th in the world; at last year’s U.S. Open, he went to the range at Brookline, not to steel himself for the competition ahead, but to warm up and hope that he would get to play at all. He was the tournament’s first alternate, and he went back to Florida before ever getting to hit a competitive shot.
Now, Rickie Fowler is good again. Sort of. I think. If we were to judge him by the standards of the average player that was outside of the top 150 last year, we’d say he’s having a career year. Two weeks ago, at the Rocket Mortgage, he won a tournament, albeit a small-ish one, for the first time since 2019. He led the field heading into Sunday at the U.S. Open. He’s had four other top-10 finishes within the calendar year. He is surely being considered for the Ryder Cup team. For Rickie, though, 2023 has been something besides a comeback or an opportunity for some cash grabs. It’s a chance to shed some of the baggage that came with that shiny beginning.
Fowler has been in a lot of commercials. That’s not a secret. Sponsors have been drooling over him since his days as a sweet-swinging matinee idol at Oklahoma State. That was fine and sensical for a while—he was popular with the young people that golf has always been desperate to woo. In 2014 and early 2015, he was as good as anybody can reasonably expect a golfer to be—he finished in the top five of every major in 2014 and then won the Players Championship the next year. But he never won that career-validating major, and so when his game fell off a cliff somewhere around three years ago, and those commercials—for Rocket Mortgage and Rolex and Puma and somehow both Cobra and TaylorMade—kept airing, the effect was a confusing one. For very casual fans, it must have been odd to flip on a golf broadcast and repeatedly see closeups of a player who wasn’t even in the field.
“You don’t see [Fowler] involved in infantile episodes (paging Bryson), sideswiping his rivals (looking at you, Brooks), or otherwise digging a public relations hole for himself (Hi, Justine!),” Eamon Lynch wrote late in 2020. “But he is dangerously close to becoming a poster child for the lopsidedness of modern golf, wherein fortunes are bestowed upon those who are, in trophy terms, decidedly impoverished.”
In early 2021, Fowler was in what was once an unimaginable position: he was playing so badly that he was in danger of missing the Masters. Nick Faldo took the opportunity to tweet his disgust: “Good news is if he misses the Masters he can shoot another six commercials that week!”
While that was a bit of a bizarre and overly sharp thing for a golf announcer to say publicly, it illuminated the problem of being Rickie Fowler: when he was at his best, his commercial omnipresence was only borderline acceptable. After he lost his game and still had all that commercial backing, he became a blaring symbol of something that has, especially recently, been a sore spot in pro golf: the fact that your compensation might have very little to do with the quality of your play.
Fowler did miss that 2021 edition of the Masters. Then he missed the next one. And the one after that, too. But he will be back in Augusta in 2024 and he’s currently ranked 21st in the world.
In 2023, Rickie Inc. doesn’t feel quite so overbearing. Fowler’s never really been the preening pretty boy that the hair and the outfits and the commercial shoots would suggest—if anything he’s a nice guy who seems comfortable with being a bit of a bore. That former image has almost entirely fallen away. Popular PGA Tour players are famously pampered, but Rickie has had to endure his fair share of shame. I certainly take for granted how bizarre his 2022 must have been; it must be disorienting to be a once-blue-chip golfer unaffected by injury or age sitting at home and watching friends and peers compete at the biggest tournaments, ones where you used to be on promotional materials. But he took it all well. He went to qualifying when he had to. And on the days where he showed up at the range to wait for a call that never came, he packed up and left without complaint.
You’ll surely hear many times this week that the last time that the Open was played at Hoylake, Rory McIlroy won the tournament. Plugging alongside him in the final group on Sunday was Fowler. He outplayed Rory that day, gaining four strokes on the eventual champion. Unfortunately, he needed six. That has more or less been the story of Rickie’s career: he’s been in full view, not quite doing enough.
But now, the expectations are different. This Rickie, with the mustache and the sunglasses and the ugly putter, is a grinder. He’s not supposed to win every tournament, but he’s willing to try and find it in the dirt. How funny, that this version of him, found at rock bottom, comes with the best branding he’s ever had.