PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Rickie Fowler is right when he says major championships, or lack thereof, will not define him as a man. Despite his neon attire, rock-star hair, and skater-boy approach to his craft, Fowler has long proven to be one of the game’s oldest souls.
Over the years he has delivered heartfelt tributes to Arnold Palmer and Payne Stewart, and has shown the kind of respect for his elders and contemporaries that would make any parent proud. But in the end, Fowler is rich and famous because he is a highly-skilled professional golfer.
And there is no running from the fact that as a highly-skilled professional golfer, he will most definitely be defined by his record in the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship.
That record is 0-for-38 and counting.
Fowler isn’t a kid anymore, fresh off the motorbike circuit. He has already lived through his 30th birthday, the point when a golfer’s biological clock starts tick, tick, ticking. So you’d better believe that Fowler’s early share of the first-round lead at the U.S. Open at 5-under is a monumental event in his life, even if he wants to act like he’d just finished a leisurely springtime stroll along the shores of Pebble Beach.
“It was very stress free,” Fowler said of his 66.
The U.S. Open is supposed to be a lot of things, but stress free isn’t among them. Fowler hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens, enough to declare his score “the worst I could have shot.” And then he walked into a news conference expecting, as always, to field multiple questions about his failure to win any of his sport’s four annual Super Bowls.
Fowler is best known as his generation’s most gracious American player, forever sticking around to offer hearty handshakes and backslaps to countrymen Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Tiger Woods, you name him, after they’ve captured their major titles.
“It’s a love-hate thing,” Fowler explained the other day. “You don’t want to be there necessarily congratulating the other guys; you want them being there congratulating you.”
It’s high time Fowler landed on the right side of these scenes behind the 72nd hole. After he made his spirited back-nine run at Reed in the 2018 Masters, finishing second by a stroke, Fowler said, “I am ready to go win a major. But this was kind of the first major week that I understood that, and know that, and felt that.”
On Thursday, before Woods and two-time defending champ Brooks Koepka had even teed off, Fowler was reminded of that quote and, indirectly, of the fact that he has only one top-10 finish (T-9 at this year’s Masters) in the five majors he’s played since.
“Yeah, that was a big week,” he said. “Obviously before I’d been in contention and been close and been around and had opportunities before, but to really kind of take the opportunity head on — that back nine, the way I executed there was similar to [Thursday], except [this first round] was all 18 holes.
“You don’t have to do anything special in majors. It’s just being disciplined and executing the shot that’s at hand and what you’re trying to do. I think it’s been a long road to get to the point where majors felt like another week, because they are bigger. They’re majors. There’s a lot going on. But no, it’s time to soak it all up and have some fun.”
This has become a consistent theme for Fowler — treating a major like it is the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Experience, he said, has been a great teacher when the stakes are high. Now, Fowler says he feels more comfortable in majors, and better equipped to keep his normal pace and rhythm when everything starts to speed up on Sunday afternoon.
But when he tried to explain that approach earlier this year in a Golf Channel episode of “Feherty,” the 18-time major champion sitting two seats to his left fired a one-iron shot in his direction.
“I’m not sure that taking every tournament the same, Rickie, is exactly the way to win a major,” Jack Nicklaus said. “I took majors totally different than I did any other tournament.”
Nicklaus would ultimately agree with Fowler’s assessment that a player should not overburden himself during the week of a major, before telling young Rickie that a player’s mental and physical prep in the preceding weeks needs to be shaped by extreme urgency.
“You’ve got to get it in your own mind,” Nicklaus said, “that, ‘This is a major. I’ve got to win it. I’ve got to put myself in position. It’s my turn. I’ve got to get it done.'”
As he made these forceful comments, Nicklaus punched his right fist into his left palm five times.
Fowler maintained that he was effectively saying the same things as Nicklaus. Either way, Fowler needs to learn to finish like he starts in golf’s four big ones. He is the only player in the world with 10 under-par first rounds in majors since 2016. He has 34 rounds in the 60s in majors since 2014, putting him among the sport’s top three.
That’s why Fowler is the reigning BPTNWAM — Best Player To Never Win A Major.
“It’s not something that’s going to define me,” he said.
As a human being? Absolutely not.
As a highly-skilled professional golfer?
You’re damn right it will.