Rickie Fowler became a brand darling because he could appear like an edgy Southern Californian while also being extremely safe. He could handle any interview without saying anything that would make an endorser even remotely uncomfortable. Marketing teams gravitated to him; his polo quickly filled up with sponsor logos. There was a natural backlash to this, especially when he didn’t win as much as we wanted or expected. There were certainly bigger winners that all that advertising cash could have gone to, but there were many, many worse candidates, too.
One of emerging identities of this championship is the process of qualifying that occurs weeks before all eyes turn to the top ranked stars on an incredible course like this week. Final qualifying gets hours of coverage and increased social media exposure. That’s been the province of Fowler in recent years at this major, and it was there that he still provided to the championship’s recent history. On the decline and mired in his slump, hovering around triple digits in the world rankings, Fowler tried, and failed, to qualify in Columbus in 2021. But even after he was eliminated, he still encouraged and talked to the dreamers with far fewer logos on their shirts. His game was in the toilet. He had been eliminated. The thing took an extra day of his time. And he was still trying to help at the very end, explaining and encouraging one alternate’s chances at getting in the field instead of running off the golf course to the private jet.
How about this ending for the 12 for 1 for 2nd alternate.
Ben Taylor dunked a wedge for eagle on the first hole. We walked up as we heard a cheer.
Rickie talking with Taylor about Taylor's chance to get in as 2nd alternate. pic.twitter.com/2obYOI850R
— Monday Q Info (@acaseofthegolf1) June 8, 2021
Proclaiming some athlete you don’t really know a great guy is a fraught exercise. But this kind of action was in line with what we’ve seen from Rickie. He is never in a bad mood. He was never short with media, even as his world ranking tumbled even further into triple digits last year. He showed some bursts of real emotion during close losses at the 2014 PGA Championship and the 2016 Phoenix Open. In another tough loss in Phoenix in 2019, he spoke like a well-adjusted adult about it and after citing the recent loss of a couple friends, he reiterated, “This is fun what we get to do.” And yes, he would also wait around to greet colleagues who’d just won, expressing joy for their success (we all got in jokes about this, including many from me). Golf has never seemed to consume him to the point of losing his sense. He’s consistently proven himself to be one of the better dudes out there.
One of the greatest sound bites in recent modern day golf. I’m sure all aspiring touring professionals could learn a lot from @RickieFowler A true champion. Hard not to like! pic.twitter.com/UMtDRqfB7g
— Peter Roberts (@PeteRobertsPGA) February 4, 2019
He was a good dude on Thursday, too. After jumping out to a first-round lead, Fowler was asked about working with Butch Harmon and he still credited his prior coach, the one who worked with him as he spiraled down the world rankings. “I still give a lot of credit to Tillery from everything I learned from him,” Fowler crowbarred into an answer that was probably supposed to fill out some preconceived column about the Butch Effect.
Fowler makes me want to use a word I absolutely loathe: class. Rickie, while maybe not winning as much as we once thought he would, is a pro golfer who seems like a genuinely good human. That and his recent loss of form made his great first round unusually emotional to see (regardless of whether there’s still a long ways to go for the trophy). Two years after counseling qualifiers after he’d missed a chance to play at Torrey Pines, Fowler set a new U.S. Open scoring record, passing Johnny Miller’s famous 63 (and the other, less-famous 63s) with an 8-under 62 at LACC North.
Thursday’s round included some dynamite putting, an area of the game that can be most fickle from day to day. Fowler led the field in Strokes Gained: Putting, and spoke of the mid-rangers he got to fall. The putter won’t stay that hot, but it’s not like that was the only part of his game that worked. A beautiful 5-iron into the difficult 17th exemplified a day where he was also among the best in Strokes Gained: Approach. Rickie has slowly climbed his way back into elite company after falling close to 200th in the world at the end of last year. After missing this major the last two years, he didn’t even need to go to qualifying this year thanks to the strength of his world ranking.
A few years ago on the Shotgun Start, I pondered whether Rickie had just come along at the wrong time. It used to be that most conventional Tour pros would often work out how to compete and win in their 20s, and then peak in their 30s. The commercials maybe clouded things, but Rickie’s trajectory felt normal — eight top fives in majors, some marquee wins, and consistency in his 20s. But then the pro game shifted and the generations behind him came in with optimization and an utmost priority on, and reward for, speed that made swaths of younger players more instantly competitive than ever. The generation or two behind Rickie immediately started winning majors and ballooning the depth pro golf right when he was supposed to hit his peak decade. It had to be frustrating.
LACC will reward those speed demons, but also a whole lot of other players with different skills and all-around games. It brings variety into play. Rickie may never fully deliver on the hype from his amateur days and the commercialization that followed, but his skills seem to be back, as evidenced by a record 10-birdie round. The broadcast kept referring to him being “back” or “on his way back” and that’s true in a world-ranking sense. But everything we heard from him and saw in his actions, even in those rough patches of golf, suggested he never changed. That made Thursday’s round that much more rewarding.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.