There was a time when being side-by-side with Tiger Woods at a major was a good sign. That wasn't the case for Rickie Fowler, mainly because they were nowhere near a golf course.
Woods was watching the Masters from home in Florida while recovering from broken bones in his legs, the worst of more than a decade of injuries. Fowler was watching with him because for the first time in a decade he wasn't eligible to play.
At least he gets a chance in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, courtesy of a special invitation that received more attention than it warranted, mainly because of who he is.
Still to be determined is whether Fowler will be at Torrey Pines next month for the U.S. Open. He hasn't missed it since his rookie year when he didn't make it through qualifying.
“It's been humbling,” Fowler said. “For someone who's been positive, when you go this long through a low point, it tests all facets of life.”
He has gone 49 tournaments worldwide since he last won, the Phoenix Open, moving him to No. 8 in the world. He has gone 29 tournaments since he last finished in the top 10, at The American Express, that one moving him back into the top 25.
He now is No. 122, his lowest ranking in more than 11 years. He goes into the PGA Championship having missed his last two cuts. Now it's a matter of finding his way back from what can either be described as a process, a journey or a grind.
“You can pick them all. It's been a bit of everything,” Fowler said. “A big part of it was playing too much golf swing, which needed to be done early on. But I think it went on for too long. Now it's back to playing golf and hitting shots.”
The invitation to the PGA Championship was not surprising. The PGA of America takes players from the last Ryder Cup team if they're still among the top 100 in the world — Fowler was just outside it at the time — and any player just outside the top 100 as it tries to make sure no one cracks the top 100 at the last minute.
Fowler stands out mainly because of his popularity, which has led to some of the biggest endorsement deals, along with no shortage of commercials. Fowler makes people notice. That's not always a good thing.
Jordan Spieth can relate. He went three full seasons without winning as he coped with the first real struggle he's had in golf. Spieth finally turned it around early this year, and he capped it with a victory in the Texas Open.
“For him — and I think for me, too — the most difficult thing about struggling is when you’ve had a lot of success and it’s then almost impossible to struggle in silence, in darkness,” Spieth said. "There’s just going to be so much noise around and so much emphasis on results versus the true understanding of what your end goal is and how much time that can take in golf.”
The change began toward the end of 2019 when Fowler decided to change coaches from Butch Harmon to John Tillery, who also works with Kevin Kisner. It didn't help that golf shut down for three months during the COVID-19 pandemic. The farther he fell, the greater the struggle.
“It's not like he's giving me bad information or we're working on the wrong things,” Fowler said. "We're all out here to try to be better. Sometimes it doesn't work out as quickly as you want. It's unfortunate that it has taken this long. As the same time, it's been humbling. You learn a lot when you're at tough points. These are things that can make or break you. They test you.
“I'm still upright and moving forward."
Nick Faldo took a jab at Fowler when he didn't make it to the Masters, suggesting in a tweet that he would have more time to shoot commercials with his many sponsors.
Faldo later said he was trying to motivate him. Fowler didn't bother to respond, even when pressed. With nine worldwide wins, including The Players Championship and a FedEx Cup playoff event, perhaps the greatest trait of the 32-year-old Californian is being unfailingly polite.
That stems from growing up in a family that rarely spoke negative words. His father, Rod, says one of the early influences for his son was seven-time Supercross champion Jeremy McGrath. “Rickie grew up around him. Jeremy was very humble. He let his bike do the talking,” Rod Fowler said.
The clubs have been silent lately.
Except for a few nagging injuries that slowed Fowler, this is his first real struggle. Fowler said he’s had close friends ask him if everything is OK outside the ropes, and that’s as frustrating as anything. He married Allison Stokke, who rivals him in positive thinking, in the fall of 2019.
“You get people from the outside making comments, ‘It’s because of this, it must be something at home.’ My life is awesome,” Fowler said with a big grin. “I’m just not getting the ball in the hole very well right now.”
Fowler's last top 10 in a major was at Royal Portrush two years ago, which assured him a spot in this year's British Open at Royal St. George's. He has been runner-up three times in the majors, and had a 50-foot eagle putt on the final hole in the 2014 PGA Championship that would have forced a playoff with Rory McIlroy. He three-putted and tied for third.
McIlroy said slumps can end without notice, though rarely without putting in the work. Fowler feels he has put in plenty of time. He's still waiting to see it pay off.
“Rickie always sees the brighter side of things,” former PGA champion and golf savant Jason Dufner said. "I know he hasn't played his best. I know he can turn the corner. I don't ever think it's as far away as people think.”