HOYLAKE, England — Nine years ago, the glowing orange Rickie Fowler sported against the backdrop of Hoylake’s cement-colored palate seemed to shine a little brighter. At the 2014 Open Championship, Fowler was still in his early 20s, wearing a flat-brimmed white and orange Puma cap with the website sewn onto it, sporting a much flatter golf swing and a much smaller putter head.
Five years into his professional career, at the time, it seemed as though Fowler was beginning to make real progress toward what at one point seemed inevitable, even guaranteed: winning. A lot.
He had just posted a top-five finish at that year’s Masters and added a second-place finish at the US Open at Pinehurst. For a player who only won once on the PGA Tour but received countless attentions, endorsement deals and hype for his name, these major league performances felt overdue. The early part of 2014 hinted that Fowler was close, but even in those tournaments before The Open, he had been eight and six shots respectively behind the eventual winner.
It wasn’t until Hoylake that year that he felt Fowler had a chance. Before Sunday almost 10 years ago, Fowler was six shots behind Rory McIlroy, who was leading the field. Fowler needed birdies and not bogeys. He shot five of the former and none of the latter and came as close as three shots after birding the 15th hole. Fowler played the course Sunday four shots better than McIlroy, but it wasn’t enough.
At the time, Fowler saw his runner-up as an omen.
“I feel like it should be here,” Fowler said after the final round in 2014. “There’s a lot more to come.”
Later that year, however, Fowler would again lose to McIlroy by two strokes, this time in the PGA Championship. It was another top-5 finish, the first American to finish in the top 5 in all single-year majors, that wasn’t good enough to beat the player who was dominating the game the way many expected Fowler to.
“I definitely have some catching up to do,” Fowler said of McIlroy’s multiple big wins at the time. “But I’m getting close.”
At first, there was an expectation that Fowler’s career would take a linear trajectory. After early difficulties, 2014 was the start of a proof of concept that culminated in Fowler’s biggest win of his career at the 2015 Players’ Championship. That, however, was never supposed to feel like the top of the mountain. And yet it was.
Fowler’s decline since then 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 the past few years of ups and downs. More than that: His success on the PGA Tour (13 top-15 finishes, one win) has felt like it’s turning into something. The sport is much deeper than it was in 2014, but Fowler, now 34, will try again this week in hopes of turning one of those close calls into a big win and capitalizing on what appears to be his best opportunity.
“I’ve always thought that between the Masters and the Open, those are the two places where I feel like I have the best chance of winning,” Fowler told ESPN on Wednesday. “I love to play golf and I’ve had success here.”
He paused and smiled.
“But I definitely like to think that this won’t be the last Open I play in.”
At Royal Liverpool on Tuesday, with the rain blotting out the sun that was left of the day before, Fowler strolled the course where he nearly won his first major. As he removed several conservative irons from the tees while some of his playmates took woods, the only orange in his sight was the inner tint of his sunglasses and the spikes on the soles of his shoes. He wore blue and gray and, under an umbrella, made notes in his yardage book. He carried his water bottle and spent less time on the greens than others.
The putter is now bigger, an Odyssey mallet that looks like a Star Wars spaceship, and the swing is more pronounced, a product of the work Fowler has done with Butch Harmon, but it has also required a lot of commitment and the ability to continue to put process before result.
“Being one of the best players in the world, I knew what I was capable of, but it’s hard when you fight for so long,” Fowler said.
The recipe is working. This year, Fowler is back in the spotlight yet again, this time for his golf more than anything else. Sure, he still wears his patented orange on Sundays. He is still represented by Puma and has a crop of sponsors sewn around his clothing and gear. But even if the tone hasn’t changed, it all feels a bit more subdued, refined, and enlivened by a different perspective.
“Having been through it all earlier in my career, succeeding or not succeeding and then struggling in the last few years. Now I’m in a position where I’m not afraid of failing,” Fowler said. Yes, I’ve taken care of all that. So yes, it’s more to go out there and give it your 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 win, secured with a 12-foot putt on the 18th hole, drew a reaction from Fowler that seemed less celebratory and more relief, even confirmation, that all the work he’s put in leading up to this season had paid off.
“It was a good moment to feel like the weight was finally off my shoulders,” Fowler said after the win. “It’s just been a long road…it’s nice to have this out of the way. I knew what I was capable of, but it’s hard when you’re fighting for so long.”
When it comes to perseverance, golf is a cruel sport. A player might have the best four rounds of his life, and there’s a good chance someone else on the field could still win by one shot. Who else to blame but yourself for not doing enough? And during big championships, where every shot feels full of stakes, that feeling is magnified. Just ask McIlroy, who has been around several situations in the past year. Of course, the difference is that he already has four races. Fowler has none.
The 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool did not mark a special break in Fowler’s career. He didn’t break down. Instead, it became a succession of up-and-down years with many other close calls and several low points. Now more than ever, Fowler seems well aware that the next slump could be the first of a long new fight, but as he’s been saying all year, he feels more confident and comfortable right now than he has in a long time.
“I knew it wasn’t far away and I had to keep putting in the time, keep working, keep pushing,” Fowler said after his victory in Detroit. “Then I started to see some positive results and I started to build confidence and momentum last fall. I would say this year and how I’ve been playing lately is probably the best I’ve felt about my game and what I’ve played.”
While his game has taken a leap, Fowler’s mental focus also seems to have changed. A year after being the first substitute at the US Open and not entering, Fowler shared the lead through the first three rounds of this year’s tournament, even shooting a US Open record 62 in his first round. But after going into Sunday with a piece of the lead, Fowler’s ball stroke deserted him and he watched as Wyndham Clark and McIlroy overtook him.
This time the perspective, after another close call, was different. Gone are the days when youth and potential bred a confidence that virtually guaranteed future success. Now, it’s hard-earned experience and a dedication to improvement that seems to support Fowler’s main hopes.
“Obviously I was playing well that year and had a lot of good finishes in the majors, but I feel like I’m a much better player now and have grown both on and off the golf course,” Fowler said. “So I feel like I’m in a much better position now with my game than I was then.”
It wasn’t long after the US Open closed for Fowler to win, but that major remains the achievement that eludes him. Listening to Fowler talk about it, however, the pressure to win one no longer weighs on him. The expectations that surrounded him nearly 15 years ago have morphed into something of an appreciation for more than just qualifying results. He’s still around, he’s still playing, and now, he’s back in competition. The crowds and their “Rickie” chants are back, too, and louder now.
Despite all the attention he received early in his career, Fowler seems to have understood his role in the game well. Winning may be his ultimate goal, but being willing to match the attention he receives with a required response by being open about his matches and taking enough time to sign autographs and take photos with fans after each round is what makes for a compelling leading man after years of coming up short.
This week presents another opportunity for Fowler to secure his first major. The site is family-friendly, and Fowler’s game is in just as good shape now as it was in 2014, maybe even better. And yet, whatever the outcome happens on Sunday, Fowler will surely be at peace with another close call. As he’s said multiple times thus far, he’s experienced the ups and downs, and if his performance this season has taught us anything, it’s that no matter what happens in the middle of that broad spectrum, Fowler will fight back 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 difficulties don’t last, but sometimes they last longer than you expect. Even when you’re playing well, it’s not going to last forever.”