HOYLAKE, England — Nine years ago, the resplendent orange Rickie Fowler wore against the backdrop of Hoylake’s cement-colored palate seemed like it glowed a little brighter. At the 2014 Open Championship, Fowler was still in his mid 20s, wearing a flat-billed, white and orange Puma hat with his website stitched on, sporting a golf swing that was far flatter, and a putter head that was much smaller.
Five years into his professional career, at the time, it felt like Fowler was starting to make real progress toward what at one point felt inevitable, guaranteed even: Winning. A lot.
He had just notched a top-five finish at the Masters that year and added a second-place finish in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. For a player who had only one PGA Tour win but countless attention, sponsorship deals and hype to his name, these performances at the majors felt overdue. The early part of 2014 hinted at Fowler being close, but even in those tournaments prior to The Open, he had been eight and six shots respectively behind the eventual winner.
It wasn’t until Hoylake that year that it felt like Fowler had a shot. Going into Sunday nearly 10 years ago, Fowler was six shots back from Rory McIlroy, who led the field. Fowler needed birdies and no bogeys. He made five of the former and none of the latter and got as close as three shots back after birdieing the 15th hole. Fowler played the course Sunday four shots better than McIlroy, but it wasn’t enough.
At the time, Fowler viewed his runner-up as a harbinger.
“It feels like I should be here,” Fowler said after the final round in 2014. “There’s plenty more to come.”
Later that year, however, Fowler would lose to McIlroy again by two strokes, this time at the PGA Championship. It was another top-5 finish — the first American to finish top-5 in every major of a single year — that wasn’t good enough to beat the player who was taking over the game in the way many had expected Fowler would.
“I definitely have some catching up to do,” Fowler said of McIlroy’s multiple major wins at the time. “But I am getting closer.”
Early on, there was an expectation that Fowler’s career would take on a linear trajectory. After early struggles, 2014 was the start of a proof of concept that culminated in Fowler’s biggest win of his career at the the 2015 Players’ Championship. That, however, was never supposed to feel like the mountaintop. And yet it was.
Fowler’s decline since hasn’t been gradual, either. But as he arrives at the site of that 2014 Open once again with no majors to his name, this season has felt like a turning point from an up-and-down last few years. More than that: His success on the PGA Tour (13 top-15 finishes, one win) has felt like it’s building up to something. The sport is far deeper than it was back in 2014, but Fowler, now 34, will try again this week in hopes of turning one of those close calls into a major win and capitalize on what feels like his best shot.
“I’ve always thought between the Masters and the Open, those are the two places where I feel like I have a better shot to win,” Fowler told ESPN Wednesday. “I love playing links golf and I’ve had success over here.”
He paused and smiled.
“But definitely like to think this won’t be the last Open I play in.”
On Tuesday at Royal Liverpool, with the rain washing out any sunshine left from the day prior, Fowler paced himself around the course where he nearly won his first major. As he took several conservative irons off the tees while some of his playing partners took woods, the only orange in sight was the inner tint on his sunglasses and the spikes on the bottom of his shoes. He wore blue and gray and, under an umbrella, took notes in his yardage book. He carried his water bottle and spent less time on the greens than others.
The putter now is bigger — an Odyssey mallet that resembles a Star Wars spaceship — and the swing is steeper, a product of work that Fowler has put in with Butch Harmon, but one that has also required plenty of commitment and an ability to continue to put process above results.
“Being that I’ve been one of the best players in the world, I knew what I was capable of, but it’s tough when you’re struggling for that long of a period of time,” Fowler said.
The recipe is working. This year, Fowler is back in the limelight once again — this time for his golf more so than anything else. Sure, he still wears his patented orange on Sundays. He’s still represented by Puma and has a crop of sponsors stitched around his clothes and gear. But even if the hue hasn’t changed, everything feels a bit more muted, refined and buoyed by a different perspective.
“Having gone through everything from earlier in my career, having success or not and then struggling the last few years. I’m in a position now where I’m not scared to fail,” Fowler said. Yeah, I’ve dealt with all of that. So yeah, it’s more go out there and give it our all.”
Just a few weeks ago at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Fowler didn’t fail. The improvements he’s made coalesced into his first PGA Tour win since 2019. The victory, secured by a 12-foot putt on the 18th hole, elicited a reaction from Fowler that appeared to be less about celebration and more about relief, confirmation even, that all the work he has put in leading up to this season had paid off.
“It was a nice moment just to kind of feel like the weight on my shoulders was finally off,” Fowler said after the win. “It’s just been a long road … it’s nice to have this one out of the way. I knew what I was capable of, but it’s tough when you’re struggling for that long of a period of time.”
When it comes to perseverance, golf is a cruel sport. A player can have the best four rounds of his life, and there’s a good chance someone else in the field can still win by a stroke. Who else to blame but yourself for not doing enough? And during major championships, where every shot feels laced with stakes, that feeling is magnified. Just ask McIlroy, who has had several close calls in the last year. Of course, the difference is that he’s got four majors already. Fowler has none.
The 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool didn’t mark some special fissure in Fowler’s career. It didn’t fall apart. Instead it became a succession of up-and-down years with plenty of other close calls and several rock bottoms. Now more than ever, Fowler seems keenly aware that the next downswing could be the first of a new, long struggle, but as he’s been saying all year, right now he feels more confident and comfortable than he has in a long time.
“I knew it wasn’t far off and just kind of had to keep putting the time in, keep grinding, keep pushing,” Fowler said after his win in Detroit. “Then I started to see some positive results and starting to build some confidence and momentum last fall. I would say this year and how I’ve been playing as of late is probably the best I’ve ever felt about my game and played.”
While his game has made a leap, Fowler’s mental approach also seems to have shifted. One year after being the first alternate in the U.S. Open and not getting in, Fowler had a share of the lead through the first three rounds of this year’s tournament, even shooting a U.S. Open record 62 in his first round. But after going into Sunday with a share of the lead, Fowler’s ballstriking left him, and he watched as Wyndham Clark and McIlroy — overtook him.
This time, the outlook, after another close call, was different. Gone are the days when youth and potential produced a confidence that all but guaranteed future success. Now, it’s hard-learned experience and dedication to improvement that appear to be supporting Fowler’s major hopes.
“I was obviously playing well that year and had a lot of good finishes in the majors but I feel like I’m a lot better player now and have grown both on and off the golf course,” Fowler said. “So I feel like I’m in a lot better position now with my game than I was back then.”
It didn’t take long after the U.S. Open close call for Fowler to win, but that major is still the accomplishment that eludes him. Yet to hear Fowler talk about it, the pressure of winning one no longer weighs him down. The expectations that surrounded him nearly 15 years ago have transformed into something like appreciation for more than just results on the leaderboard. He’s still around, he’s still playing, and now, he’s back to contending. The crowds and their “Rickie” chants are back and louder now, too.
For all the attention he received early on in his career, Fowler seems to have understood his role in the game well. Winning may be his ultimate goal, but having the willingness to match the attention he gets with a requisite response by being open about his struggles and taking ample time to sign autographs and take pictures with fans after every round is what makes him a compelling protagonist after years of coming up just short.
This week presents yet another shot for Fowler to secure his first major. The site is familiar, and Fowler’s game is in as good a shape now as it was in 2014, maybe even better. And yet whatever result transpires come Sunday, Fowler will surely be at peace with another close call. As he’s said various times by now, he’s experienced the highs and the lowest of lows, and if his performance this season has taught us anything, it is that no matter what happens in between that wide spectrum, Fowler will tee it up again and keep trying.
“You never really know with this game,” Fowler said. “You definitely learn to appreciate the good times and when you’re playing well. You hope the struggles don’t last, but sometimes they last longer than you would hope for. Even when you’re playing well, it’s not going to last forever.”