LOS ANGELES – It was a Hollywood ending, just not the one he’d imagined – more “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” than “Great Expectations.”
Rickie Fowler has been a star ever since he landed on the biggest stage with a SoCal style that sold everything from flat-brimmed hats to home mortgages. There was a time when that “Rickie” would have felt right at home on the $8 billion piece of property off Wilshire Boulevard, so much so his swing coach Butch Harmon once famously told him, “You gotta decide are you going to be a Kardashian or are you going to be a golf pro.”
The style eventually gave way to substance. He won his first title in 2012, collected his biggest prize at the ’15 Players Championship and famously completed the Top-5 Slam in 2014, finishing T-5 at the Masters, T-2 at the U.S. Open, T-2 at The Open and T-3 at the PGA Championship.
During another time, Fowler would have been an easy favorite at the Glitz and Glamor Open, but those days had faded like his bright orange Sunday appeal and his game. When he failed to qualify for last year’s U.S. Open, he was 152nd in the world ranking and searching for answers.
Full-field scores from U.S. Open
When Fowler called Harmon last November, he’d bottomed out. “I’m kinda lost,” he told the legendary swing coach. Harmon gladly rekindled what had been a productive relationship. Why wouldn’t he?
“I mean, he’s so nice. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like Rickie?” Harmon asked.
For anyone who watched Sunday’s final round at Los Angeles Country Club, the answer to Harmon’s rhetorical question could easily be fate. The kid from Murrieta, Calif., set a U.S. Open scoring record with an opening 62, kept the lead with a 68 on Day 2 and began the final round tied at 10 under with Wyndham Clark atop the leaderboard.
For those inclined to demand an answer in the simplest terms, golf happened to Fowler on Sunday.
“I just didn’t have it today,” he shrugged. “Iron play was very below average and didn’t make anything. That’s a big thing in majors, especially on a Sunday. Making putts and kind of keeping it fairly stress-free.”
Although effortlessly succinct, Fowler’s efficiency misses so much from the final round but his lack of introspection is understandable.
He posted his third bogey of the day at No. 7 to fall five shots off the pace and a 3-over closing nine dropped him to fifth place. This was not the storybook finish so many had envisioned for Fowler whose reclamation from a career-threatening slump has been the understated highlight of 2023.
Even as the title rocketed away from him, Fowler remained hopeful, explaining that it wasn’t until Clark two-putted for birdie at the par-5 14th hole that reality set in.
“I thought if I could make that putt on the next, which I nearly did, I thought that might kind of give me a shot to get a two-shot swing and maybe make a run in the last three,” Fowler shrugged. “I knew I was on the outside looking in, but at the same time, you never know what’s going to happen.”
If the last few years have taught Fowler anything, it’s the value of the unintended and unexpected.
The cold numerical indifference will note that Fowler is now 2-for-10 closing out 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour, and 0-for-48 in a major career that began just down the coast at the historic 2008 U.S. Open. But, as is normally the case, that misses so much of Fowler’s story. There have been countless near-misses, heartbreaks and close calls in his career but his finish at L.A.C.C. won’t be the one that haunts him.
After more than two years adrift in a competitive abyss, a poor ball-striking Sunday and a cold putter is the last thing that’ll send him spiraling.
“After the last few years being in this position, kind of how I talked about how comfortable I felt this week, this is great,” Fowler said. “As much as it sucks to not be in the position I wanted to be after today, we’re just continuing to build and continuing to move forward. Not the finish I wanted, but there’s a lot of really good things to take from this week.”
Sports likes to cling to the finality of wins and loses, and some will consider Fowler’s perspective a losers lament. But when you’ve been dragged for so long by the game you love, perspective is the only option.
That’s not to say Fowler wasn’t wrestling with his share of emotions, having let a precious chance to win a coveted major slip away. His voice cracked when he was asked what he told Clark on the 72nd hole and he swallowed deep when he saw his daughter waiting for him after a brutal day on the crispy North Course.
“Obviously very bummed, but being able to see my daughter before scoring, it kind of takes a lot of that away because in the kind of big picture, big scheme of things, yes, we want to win tournaments and be the one holding the trophy, but she could care less if I shoot 65 or 85,” he said. “It kind of just makes you realize and understand golf is special and it’s what I love to do, but it’s definitely not everything.”
Los Angeles’ North Course was never going to be the end of Rickie’s story. His career, both the highs and lows, has been far too eventful for such a clean conclusion.
For three days, it felt as if the stars had finally aligned for the game’s most forlorn star. But as he collected his daughter, Maya, and was joined by his wife, Allison, it was clear that in this defeat, Fowler found something much more important than a trophy.