At 2023 WM Phoenix Open, Rickie Fowler’s return to contention feels right
SCOTTDALE, Arizona. If you wanted to capture the Ricky Fowler experience or what has become of him over the last four years, you could do a lot worse than the 14th box tee on Saturday afternoon.
For the fans decorating the hillside adjacent to Scottsdale Road, Fowler’s driver’s head meeting the golf ball served as the starting pistol. It may be the furthest reaches of TPC Scottsdale, but wherever Fowler goes, the party goes. So when his ball went up in the air, the screams intensified. “Let them hang, Ricky,” one fan yelled. A more common refrain was a three-word rhyme not suitable for print. It starts with Big and ends with Rick, if that helps.
On the PGA Tour, it’s rarefied air. Golfers rarely have a cult following. The Thunderbirds could have allowed 120 or so of this week’s 134 participants to walk around the grounds on Sunday, and it would have brought nothing but whispers to the side of the biggest diehard golfers.
Ricky? Ricky is one of the others.
The Thunderbirds, organizers of the Phoenix Open, were among the first to recognize this. Back in 2009, when Fowler was still an amateur at Oklahoma State, he was invited to the tournament as an exception. Partly because they could see his unique talent. It was also because they could see his unique appeal.
Ricky Fowler makes his way to the 12th tee during the third round of the 2023 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports)
All this came to a standstill in 2014. At the track, Fowler finished in the top five in all four specialties. He became the next superstar in golf and had a swagger to match. His signature Sunday look made orange the go-to color for golf, and the Puma became the outfit choice in municipalities across the country.
This all brings us back to Saturday at the 14th hole. For these fans, the 2014 Fowler lives on.
However, the golf course’s thin green ropes amusingly separate vision from reality. So it was on the 14th. As the fans serenaded Fowler, the man himself crouched on one knee, begging the errant ball to return to the fairway. So it was on the 15th when the fans exploded as he leaned to the left watching his disc float through the desert thicket. Never mind, the crowd rose again as Fowler went to the fifth par green in two, aiming for the middle clearing of the V-tree. Again, the actual results betrayed them. Fowler’s ball found water.
This is the recent experience of Ricky Fowler.
After winning the Phoenix Open 2019, he wandered the wilderness of golf. Over the past three seasons, his stats have been as follows: 60 tournaments played, no wins, four top 10 finishes, 24 misses. He ranked 94th, 134th, and 133rd in the FedEx Cup standings.
“It’s been a tough couple of years as I’ve been trying to figure things out, work on some changes and eventually get comfortable,” Fowler said last year.
Of course, what was seen on Saturday. Fowler’s fight with the tee was no mirage. He only found six out of 14 fairways and, in his words, “just got by.”
But this time, it’s not the full story. Take the same holes on Saturday’s back nine.
On the 14th, Fowler came out on the edge from the left rough, establishing parity with two hits. On the 15th, he was stuck in the field four feet from the drop zone. Crisis averted: par. Finding water on the tee with a pull hook on the 17th, he drained a tricky 13-foot ball to keep par once more.
“He handled it really well, scored points and sort of moved forward,” Fowler said.
So things moved to 18, and Fowler took a seat he’d rarely had in the last four years. In addition to green, the electronic scoreboard showed Fowler entering the top 10 with an 8-low rating for the week. The fans stood at attention, already in their places, in order to see the leaders in a few minutes. Fowler element.
So, from a distance of 121 yards, he pulled out a wedge of sand and became the hero of the day.
One pull, then two, and that’s it. Fowler’s ball settled just inches from the hole. Before his birdie moved to 9 under, he waved his arms, causing the crowd to roar in their throats.
“It’s fun to play with the fans here when you get the chance,” Fowler said. “I felt pretty confident after that and I kept it under control. So do your best to attract fans and make sure they have a good time.”
For four years now, these moments have been catastrophically lacking. Golf missed them. And Fowler missed them.
“Indeed, there hasn’t been much time in this position in the last few years,” Fowler said. No, he never gets old. But actually it is not. We’ve been here before. So you just have to soak it up and have fun.”
Fowler dismissed the notion that his struggle fundamentally changes anything about the experience of arguing. The joy of walking away from 18 just four strokes back as Sunday’s big tournament approaches is still a joy, just as it always has been.
But this is no longer the Ricky Fowler he once was. He now has wrinkles, an elderly statesman during the youth movement of the Tour. The skater’s hair that was sticking out from under his golf cap is long gone. As he spoke to a reporter after Saturday’s press conference, his eyes lit up when he saw his one-year-old daughter, Maya, hobble over to him and call for “daddy.” When his media duties were completed, parental responsibilities were taken over. On the patio outside TPC Scottsdale, he played with Maya, spinning her around until she was so tired she couldn’t laugh anymore.
The soundtrack to their father-daughter session was familiar. Several fans noticed him from behind the official golf carts and the media stand. “Ricky, Ricky,” the chants went up.
The Ricky Fowler Experience, meet Ricky Fowler.