Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 4, 2021

One Small Step For Rickie

It was, by so many measures, just a passing moment. Small in the literal sense, with less than four seconds elapsing from the time Rickie Fowler began an abbreviated backswing with a pitching wedge until his chip shot from the front of the 18th green at Bay Hill rolled into the cup for a closing birdie in Thursday’s opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Minor within Fowler’s round, just one stroke of the 76 it took him to cover the sprawling Orlando layout, four more shots than par and a whopping ten more than first-round co-leaders Corey Connors and Rory McIlroy. Almost certainly soon to be forgotten as one of the PGA Tour’s most popular events rolls on, with Fowler unlikely to make the cut unless he posts a dramatically better score on Friday. The subject of scant attention, coming as it did late in the day, before only a handful of fans at a tournament with attendance limited to a fraction of the pre-pandemic number.

Besides, many of those who were allowed on the grounds spent their time at the par-5 6th hole, a cross-country hike from Bay Hill’s closing par-4. They staked out their spots on the dogleg that loops around a massive lake, hoping to see Bryson DeChambeau take a shortcut from the tee across all that water and drive the green, as he loudly proclaimed he was contemplating in the days prior to the start of the tournament.

So a very small moment indeed. And yet that single shot, that sublime swing after so many errant ones, spoke volumes about one of the Tour’s most popular players, about unfulfilled promise and a golf game gone missing, but also about the potential for greatness that still exists in a golfer who despite being in his second decade on Tour, is still barely two months past his 32nd birthday.

Fowler’s day started innocently enough, with routine pars on each of Bay Hill’s first three holes. His troubles began on the 4th when his drive headed for the back yard of one of the expensive homes that border the right side of the uphill par-5. The penalty stroke, a poor approach shot, an aggressive pitch that ran all the way across the green, it all added up to a double-bogey seven by the time Fowler walked to the next tee. He got one stroke back two holes later, birdieing the 6th while taking a more conventional route than the fans hope to see DeChambeau try before the event wraps up, but promptly bogeyed the 7th and 8th, then added three more bogeys on the back nine against a lone birdie.

In the waning light of a late winter day Fowler came to Bay Hill’s home hole 5-over par for his round, on his way to one more disappointing performance in what has become a lengthy struggle to regain his form. In his ten most recent starts, dating back to last fall, Fowler has broken 70 in just one quarter of his rounds. Not surprisingly, he’s missed the cut four times. Even when managing to play the weekend, the results have been unimpressive, with a tie for twentieth place two weeks ago at the Genesis Invitational his best finish.

It’s a far cry from the confident shot making that was the hallmark of the 20-year-old who burst onto the PGA Tour in 2009. Fowler recorded a top-ten finish in his first Tour event and just missed a victory in his second, losing out in a three-way playoff. In 2014 he was runner-up at both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship and finished third at the PGA Championship. The following year he won the Players, beating Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a playoff which he forced his way into by playing the final four holes of regulation in 5-under par. Along the way, with his quick smile, easygoing manner, and orange outfits for final rounds in tribute to his time at Oklahoma State, Fowler quickly became an enormous draw for younger fans, making him an especially valuable commodity to a sport with a decidedly older fan base.

Yet that very popularity, and especially the plethora of endorsement deals it has produced, has made his relatively thin golfing resume even more glaring. The 2015 Players Championship win was just his second Tour victory, and since then Fowler has added only three more. Now two years removed from his most recent win and seemingly at least that far from another one, Fowler, who has been as high as fourth in the world rankings, has tumbled all the way down to sixty-fifth. Since he is not otherwise exempt, unless he climbs back into the top fifty in the next few weeks, he’ll miss the Masters for the first time in a decade. Word of that possibility led six-time major winner turned CBS analyst Nick Faldo to tweet that perhaps Fowler could instead spend Masters week shooting another half-dozen television commercials. It was a cheap shot, especially from someone who can currently be seen making the absurd claim that a certain brand of golf shoes will add seven yards to one’s drive. But it was also a reminder that potential alone doesn’t build a legacy.

And yet. Fowler’s drive on the 18th finished in the rough, just off the right side of the fairway. His next shot landed short of the green and about ten yards from the hole, which for the opening round was cut on the front left of the putting surface, away from the water that will swallow up any wayward approach shot come Sunday. Grinding to the end, Fowler studied the straightforward chip, then settled into his stance and took his swing. The ball bounced once, twice, then started to roll. Running straight and true, it made a beeline for the flag, dropping into the hole for birdie. The few fans in the grandstand cheered, and Fowler responded with a rueful shake of his head and a tentative wave. “That was nice, but I don’t know that it’s enough to turn the whole mood around,” said the Golf Channel announcer. True enough, for one passing moment is unlikely to change much. Then again, every comeback starts somewhere.

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