When Rickie Fowler won The Players Championship in May of 2015, it answered a lot of questions about his ability to close the deal on the PGA Tour, to beat the best in the best of competition.
Not long before that thrilling triumph—he played the final four holes in five under par, then beat Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a playoff—a magazine survey of pros had voted Fowler the most overrated player. The Players victory was a major pushback against those perceptions and a major push forward in the career of a young man who has seriously come into his own.
In a season that saw Jordan Spieth win two major titles and Jason Day take a major to fulfill his promise, Rickie Fowler made his own stamp on the game. He followed up The Players with wins at the Scottish Open and the Deutsche Bank Classic, before starting 2016 with a win in Abu Dhabi.
And while you could say that The Players was his great point of departure, it is likely that a challenge from his coach, Butch Harmon, at the end of the 2014 campaign was the kick in Fowler's Puma pants that led to it. Fowler had finished in the top five in all four majors in 2014, but didn't win one, or any other tournament. Was he just a Puma mannequin, a fashion-forward ATM who cashed in on the game, but couldn't cash in the chips on Sunday?
"I used a little bit of tough love with him a couple years ago when he had those top-five finishes in all the majors, which was quite a feat," says Harmon. "He was really excited about that and at the end of the year when we were talking about what we needed to work on, I said, ‘Yeah, that was good, but you didn't win anything.' And I said, ‘Golf is about winning. Top fives don't really mean much, it's about winning golf tournaments, that's what your job is.' I think that startled him a little. I wanted him to realize that winning is the most important thing. I said once you win you are going to see how much more you feel good about yourself, how much more confidence you have and winning breeds winning and he's proved that now with how many tournaments he's won over the last nine months."
When Fowler won The Players, he was immediately asked about that players' poll.
"I laughed at the poll, but yeah, if there was any question, I think this right here answers anything you need to know," Fowler said at the time, responding in the quiet confident manner that reaches through all parts of his game and all parts of his life.
It's a very mature confidence in a very youthful player. Fowler is 27, looks like he's 20, and acts older and wiser. Call him Kid Konfident. His recent achievements, starting 2016 with a win, a fifth place at Kapalua, a second at the Phoenix Open and then his thrilling hole-in-one at Els for Autism that lit up social media portends well as he searches for that one defining victory, a major.
"It's having the belief and that confidence in knowing I can go out and get the job done, and having done so, winning four times in the last nine months, that belief has only continued to grow," Fowler says. "It's a fun time for me, it's a great time for golf. There are a lot of guys playing well and I'm just proud to be part of the mix."
In the absence of the imposing shadow of Tiger Woods, the mix last season was primarily the precocious Spieth, the dazzling Day and the magnificent Rory McIlroy. Now Fowler, though still without a major, has turned the Big Three into the Big Four.
"They are the three best, highest ranked players in the world, the three of them have played pretty amazing," says Fowler. "I want to be part of that crew. I think I mentioned last summer that I was a sneaky fourth. So we've got to take care of a major then maybe I can join the crew."
For Harmon, Fowler has already joined that club.
"If you look at the tournaments he won, it's been against quality fields, against the best players in the world," says Harmon. "It makes you believe in yourself. It gives you more confidence in all the work you've done because you've done it for the right reasons. He plays with so much more confidence. He knows he belongs in that group of elite ones at the top. At The Players we used the motivation of very underrated player and he goes out and wins. He goes to Abu Dhabi and everything is Rory and Jordan. Even though he's playing in that group, he's kind of flying under the radar as far as expectations. Then on Sunday everybody had to talk about him because he won the tournament."
There has always been a buzz around Fowler, and that first buzz came from an unlikely source—motocross. Back in his hometown of Murrieta, California, his father Rod introduced him to motorcycles at an early age and also introduced him to local motocross hero Jeremy McGrath, who was Fowler's Tiger Woods as a youth.
But Fowler's maternal grandfather had also introduced him to golf, and the two sports tugged at him until a motorcycle accident set him on a course for golf. Somewhat on his own but also under the tutelage of the late Barry McDonnell, he became a top high school player, then golfed for Oklahoma State, played on two Walker Cup teams and established himself as one of the world's top amateurs before turning pro in 2009.
He immediately made his mark with a series of high finishes and in 2010, at the age of 21 years and nine months, was a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup and the youngest U.S. player ever on that team.
In September of that year, Fowler signed on with the apparel company Puma and his fashion statement-bold colors (orange on Sunday for Oklahoma State) and his big—brimmed caps—brought him a whole slew of attention. He became the Pied Piper of Puma, and on tournament weekends, children were following in his wake, attracted to his hip vibe, dressing like him, clamoring for autographs that he unfailingly signed. It touches him deeply.
"It puts things into perspective whether I'm having a good day or bad day out there," says Fowler. "Seeing young fans or any fans wearing the Puma gear and showing support, it just makes me realize and appreciate what I get to do. It's cool to be in a position where kids do look up to you and I have a chance to be a role model and potentially have a chance to have a positive influence on kids' lives."
Fowler's lifestyle has been highly public. Along with fellow PGA Tour pros Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan and Ben Crane, Fowler became part of a golf rap group, The Golf Boys. He flew in an F16, he continued to ride motorcycles, took delivery of expensive, sporty cars (Mercedes Benz, Porsche, a precious Mini Cooper), and dated a model (the relationship has since ended). Life was in the fast lane, even if his results on the course weren't keeping pace. Nevertheless, he was devoted to getting better, to being something other than a flash in the pan.
Ernie Els was familiar with Fowler's rise to the PGA Tour and introduced himself to him at Torrey Pines in 2010. There was something about Fowler that Els saw as important for the game. "I just welcomed him to the Tour," says Els. "He was kind of quiet, kind of shy but you could see he had a lot going on. And he had that very special quality as a person. Then I was watching him on that back nine at The Players [in 2015] and I think it was some of the best golf I've ever seen played. He's really got a very high-quality game. All that's missing is a major."
It took a while for Fowler to become a PGA Tour winner, and he broke through at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012. But that was it until The Players last year. Justin Rose knows what it's like to have to carry around the burden of expectations as a young player. The Englishman was a standout amateur who struggled mightily when he first turned pro before finally climbing the ladder to the top of the game. He's seen Fowler's game mature and seen the aura that surrounds him.
"I've played enough with him to see the effect he has and definitely the young kids that come out dressed like him," says Rose. "He's very unique in his styling. I think he is his own man, which is fantastic. And he plays golf that way. He's got that style and flair that are unique to him. I think his golf has grown. Butch has done a great job with him."
What Harmon did was essentially overhaul Fowler's swing, not an easy thing for a player to wrap his head around and not an easy thing to change when you've swung a certain way your whole life.
"Of all the people I've had success with at the upper level of the tour [think Tiger Woods], you can actually see the changes in Rickie's swing quite a bit," says Harmon. "It was a change in the takeaway where he used to get the club way outside of his hands until about waist high. Now the club is more in line with his feet in that position. I had to change his posture, he was too bent over. Change his takeaway. He would go back with the shaft outside his hands and the top of his swing he would have to reverse that. The club was way behind him and he would have to release really hard with his hands and when his timing was right he hit the ball pretty good, but if the timing got off he hit it all over the place. Now, because he has the club coming down in the right position, more in front of him, his consistency has gotten so much better."
Fowler took to Harmon's teaching because he not only knew that Harmon had coached Woods to major wins, but he had some things in common with his late coach. "Both are old school," says Fowler. "Barry passed away in his 70s, so they are from the same era. Part of it is just feeling comfortable and having someone like Butch when I'm out there. That's what I did with Barry growing up and that's what I'm doing with Butch right now."
And Harmon sees room for improvement, the kind of improvement that can lead to a major victory.
"He can do better with his short irons. From about 150 yards in his proximity to the hole isn't as good as it could be," says Harmon. "We worked hard in the offseason on that and his wedge game has gotten a lot better. That was the big area I wanted him to improve on. His sand game he has done very well. He's always been a good putter and he's always chipped the ball pretty good, it's just his actual wedge play wasn't as good as it should be."
Harmon sees Fowler's motocross background as part of his competitive DNA.
"Absolutely. He's fearless when he plays golf," says Harmon. "If you watch him, things don't bother him. Bad holes don't bother him. Bad shots don't bother him. He can shrug those off. I mean, he was in a sport that you can get killed doing and he loved every minute of it. He loved the challenge of it. He loved the adrenalin of it. He loves to compete and has always been a great competitor. That's a huge asset, to be fearless. There isn't any shot he doesn't think he can hit. There isn't any putt he doesn't think he can make."
Fowler's longtime caddie Joe Skovron echoes that thought. "He likes that moment. He's never really struggled in that moment. He gets that moment and he finishes," Skovron says.
Putting in the work that Harmon required in order for the swing changes to become part of the routine was also in Fowler's DNA. He didn't come from money. His dad, Rod, was a trucker, his mother, Lynne, worked in the office of a steel company. His maternal grandfather, Yutaka Tanaka, was incarcerated in the internment of Japanese-Americans
living on the West Coast during World War II. His maternal grandmother is of Navajo Indian descent.
"To see how hard they work is something I will never forget," Fowler says. "And to know where my family came from, what they went through in the internment camps, to see what they believed as far as treating people . . . that will always stay with me."
Certainly Harmon has seen this aspect of Fowler close up.
"His mom and dad are great," says Harmon. "His mom and his sister travel with him a lot, handling his stuff. The family he came from, he's very close to his grandma and grandpa—I know them, too, and they are wonderful people—the background and heritage of the whole family is great and that's one of the reasons he's such a nice kid."
And a giving one. Through his Rickie Fowler Foundation he has helped Japanese and Native American communities. He donated $100,000 to the victims of the 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. He enjoys spending time with children. After he won in Abu Dhabi on a Sunday, he flew overnight to San Francisco, took a charter to San Diego and helped with a clinic for the local First Tee. Fowler has an endorsement relationship with Farmers Insurance, the sponsor of the San Diego tournament, and now appears in one of their commercials. "I said I would do it, I got some sleep on the plane, and it's important that I follow through when I say I'm going to do something," says Fowler.
Els has benefited from Fowler's devotion to doing the right thing as the young golfer has played in the Els for Autism event, the cause so close to Els' heart. "You know, these young kids who are successful, they get pulled in a lot of different directions," says Els. "But Rickie has always made time for us, always asked what he could do to help. He's got that special quality about him that very few people have. I have gotten to know his parents some and see where that comes from."
From a wellspring of family devotion, Fowler worked his way into the everyday conversation about the best players in the game. Golf requires a certain backbone, a certain determination to overcome the inevitable bad days, and take yourself to levels that can be at once exhilarating and uncomfortable. The Rickie Fowler elevator has reached the penthouse level and he's knocking on the door of a major. This doesn't surprise Butch Harmon.
"Does he know who he is, does he have a lot of confidence?" Harmon asks. "Of course he does, but it's not an arrogance, not a cockiness, it's just a self belief."
And as for a major victory, listen to Ernie Els: "He's got the game. He's got the attitude. He just needs that little bit of luck."
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.