ORLANDO, FLORIDA | Rickie Fowler, wearing his Sunday orange shirt and the natural coolness he seems to have been born with, walked up the slope behind Bay Hill’s 18th green, talking to his caddie Joe Skovron about a missed 7-footer for birdie that closed out another down-the-line finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
As Fowler stepped toward a tunnel beneath a grandstand, a little girl leaned against the metal railing above and asked for his autograph. Fowler paused, signed a golf ball and rather than toss it to her, he jumped, laid the ball at her feet and gave her a smile.
There is a grace about Fowler that, to this point anyway, no amount of gathering frustration can penetrate.
Fowler remains as charismatic and popular as ever but he is more a face and less a factor on the PGA Tour at the moment.
Seven years ago Fowler won the Players Championship with a legendary finish, playing the last six holes in regulation in 6-under par, then beating Sergio García and Kevin Kisner in a playoff with a birdie on the infamous par-3 17th hole.
This week when the Players starts at Sawgrass, Fowler will be at home in Jupiter, Florida, with his wife, Allison, and their 4-month-old daughter, Maya.
His five-year exemption to the Players Championship has expired (there’s a case to be made for getting a 10-year exemption for winning the tour’s flagship event), he’s fallen outside the top 120 in the world rankings and there are five names ahead of his on the alternate list for Stadium Course tee times this week.
“It’s a place where we have some really good memories and not one you want to miss by any means,” Fowler said of the $20 million Players Championship early Sunday afternoon, his final round at Bay Hill spoiled by a bogey-double bogey-triple bogey run starting at the seventh hole.
Now 33, Fowler is chasing the form that allowed him to finish in the top five of all four major championships in 2014. The only major he’s currently qualified to play this year is the PGA Championship in May.
During the weekend at fiery Bay Hill, Fowler played 32 holes even par. He played the other four in 9-over par. In this case, the course setup was the bigger culprit than Fowler’s still spotty game in his T52 finish.
A couple of prominent players asked where the USGA signs were, suggesting it was U.S. Open tough and unfairly so. Some said the difficulty – particularly greens so slick putters that would slide when players addressed the ball – may keep players away in the future.
Whether at Bay Hill or any other course, the game rarely comes as easily for Fowler as it once did. His trajectory remains tilted in the wrong direction.
He has finished in the top 10 just three times since the first week of January, 2020. In that time, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland have become what Fowler once seemed destined to be.
“You don’t wish this on anyone but everyone is going to have to go through something like this at some point, whether it’s short or long,” Fowler said. “For me, I’ve always been very positive and look at the glass half full.”
Fowler trusts the work he has done with swing coach John Tillery but eventually the occasional sparks need to turn into a fire. Last season, he ranked 157th in strokes gained on approach shots. This season, he’s 127th, a precipitous tumble compared to those numbers during his best years.
There have been moments – Fowler tied for third in the CJ Cup last fall and opened with a 66 in the Farmers Insurance Open before shooting 76 to miss the cut – but his last seven PGA Tour starts have produced three missed cuts and a best finish of T40 at Mayakoba.
He’s like a car engine that won’t start.
“I keep pulling the choke. It’s getting there. It’s sputtering,” Fowler says.
“It seems like every time I get some momentum going, something kicks me back. It’s two steps forward, one step back. It’s working on getting that car started.”
Sometimes players say they are close and a week or two later their faith is validated. Other times, players sound like they’re wishing it to be true.
Fowler may be someplace in between.
Sunday’s round exhibited where Fowler finds himself. He double bogeyed the par-4 eighth after hitting his tee shot into the ridiculously long rough and needing three more shots to get his ball on the green. At the ninth, he found the rough again, barely advanced his second shot, put his third in a bunker, blasted out and three putted for triple.
On Bay Hill’s dangerous 16th, 17th and 18th holes, Fowler looked like he was on cruise control, giving himself makeable birdie putts on each.
“There was a lot of good stuff,” Fowler said.
Just not enough.
One year ago here, Jordan Spieth was asked what he learned through his struggles that might apply to Fowler.
“The most difficult thing about struggling is when you've had a lot of success and therefore it's almost impossible to struggle in silence, in darkness, and get your work done in the dark,” Spieth said. “There's just going to be so much noise around and so much emphasis on results versus the true understanding of what your end goal is and how much time that can take in golf.”
It’s as true today as it was a year ago and still applicable to Fowler.
This week, Fowler intends to lay low before getting back to work. He will keep an eye on the Players Championship but it will go on without him.
“It sucks that it’s the Players I’m missing but I have a few weeks off,” Fowler said.
A few minutes later, as the leaders started their final round, the crowd was three deep along a metal barricade near where the players park.
There was Fowler, Sharpie in hand, signing autographs and posing for selfies.
Top: A 76-77 weekend at Bay Hill will leave Rickie Fowler outside looking in at the Players Championship, which he won in 2015.