ERIN, Wisc. — As we assess Rickie Fowler’s U.S. Open performance at Erin Hills, let’s get a few things out of the way early: If you’re critical of Fowler because you feel his level of fame outweighs his accomplishments, or because he dates a lot of beautiful women, or because you think he appears in too many insurance commercials and is too in love with Snapchat, you’re making the wrong argument.
None of that has any real effect on his golf. There are a lot of bad takes out there when it comes to Fowler, but the one that suggests he wants to be famous more than he wants to be great, is off the mark. If someone wanted to give you a bunch of money to wear neon-colored clothes, or if models and Instagram celebrities wanted to date you, you’d almost certainly embrace those opportunities. Fowler isn’t that different, in that respect, from Derek Jeter. Maybe there was a time when his focus on golf wasn’t quite what it needed to be, but earlier this year, Butch Harmon, his swing coach, shamed him just enough to get him back on track.
“We had a big conversation at the end of last year, and he didn’t like it,” Harmon said this week. “I said ‘You’ve got to decide, are you going to be a Kardashian, or are you going to be a golf pro? You’re the king of social media, and you’re all over these Snapchats and all these things. You need to reach down and grab your ears and get your head out of your you know what and get back to work, get your body in shape.'”
Harmon insists that Fowler took it to heart, worked hard on his physique and his golf swing and was ready to start winning majors. Few people in the game of golf have more credibility than Harmon, so I’m no longer interested in the argument that the pursuit of fame is holding Fowler back.
What is fair, however, is a critical assessment of Fowler’s golf game.
It’s OK to want to see more from Rickie Fowler, to see his performance at Erin Hills — where he tied for fifth after holding the first-round lead — and feel a little disappointed. Finishing top-5 in a major is great, but this is the sixth time he has accomplished that feat. It’s OK to hold him to a higher standard than we hold some of the game’s other young stars.
Fowler is too talented to let opportunities like these keep slipping through his fingers. Yes, winning on the PGA Tour is hard, and yes, winning majors is even harder. But as someone who has spent the last several years sticking up for Fowler and making excuses on his behalf, I’m ready to see him actually make the leap and close the deal in one of these.
This really could have been his U.S. Open. I’ll argue it should have been. It was there for the taking. Everything about Erin Hills played to Fowler’s strengths. He could hit driver off every tee, he’s a great wind player, and he could attack soft greens with his irons and then use his superior putting to his advantage. On Thursday, that’s exactly what happened. He made Erin Hills look easy on his way to shooting a 65. If he had followed it up with anything in the 60s, it would have been hard for anyone to catch him.
Instead, he went backward with a listless 73. No big deal, I thought at the time. He got his one mediocre round of the way, and even though he let everyone else back in the tournament, he was still the man to beat. None of the players in contention at Erin Hills had won a major either, so clearly this was Fowler’s best chance yet. This wasn’t 2014, when Folwer contended in all four majors but got beaten by Martin Kaymer in the U.S. Open, and then twice by Rory McIlroy in the Open Championship and PGA Championship. As the most accomplished golfer in the hunt at Erin Hills, this was his moment.
Instead, he essentially spent the next three days losing ground. He was never really a factor over the weekend and never injected the tournament with any real drama. A few years ago, that would have been OK, just another positive step forward. But this one felt different. It felt like regression. He seemed to play it safe, taking long irons and 3-woods off the tee, perhaps hoping that other players would make mistakes and come back to him. It was reminiscent of his Sunday at the Masters this year, when he started the day in third, sprayed his irons left and right, made seven bogeys and faded from third to 11th with a 76.
Fowler said he wouldn’t consider anything about this year’s U.S. Open a negative. He didn’t think his strategy Sunday was any different than it was Thursday. He seemed pleased to have snuck into the top-5.
“I feel like golfwise, I’m playing at the highest level,” he said. “If you look at the negatives too much, you’re going to be stuck just doing that the whole time. You have to measure success in different ways, not just by winning, just because that doesn’t happen a whole lot. I think Tiger [Woods] had the best winning percentage of all time at 30 percent, and you’re lucky to even sniff close to 10 [percent]. You kind of have to say, ‘Hey, it’s a major.'”
It’s unfair to compare every player to Woods, even though we inevitably do it. Fowler is the one who brought him up, though, so let’s use that as an opportunity to remember something about Woods. Listening to Fowler, it does make you appreciate — even more so, in retrospect — just what ridiculously high standards Woods had for himself. When he finished in the top-5 at a major and he wasn’t a factor, he looked like he wanted to bend a wedge into a pretzel. He’d spend the next several months turning his weaknesses into strengths.
Fowler isn’t ever going to be Tiger. He’ll never even be Rory McIlroy, to be blunt. But right now, his trajectory looks more like Sergio Garcia’s, an extraordinary ball striker who might have won a handful of majors in his prime, but who let a ton of chances slip through his fingers in his 20s and 30s. Eventually it became a huge burden to bear.
Garcia eventually grabbed a green jacket, a feat that mostly erased his disappointments. His career is nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe Fowler will be similarly rewarded one day.
Still, when you watch him play at the peak of his powers, the way he played Thursday when he hit laser-like irons and bombed in putts, you can’t help but think: Shouldn’t this guy win a handful of these?