Rickie Fowler Needs a Putting Revival to Win the U.S. Open
OAKMONT, Pa. -- Rickie Fowler managed to speak to the media for 15 minutes and 56 seconds on Tuesday without actually saying anything. It might be the best part of Fowler’s game, his diplomacy at the podium. A tactic employed more and more by golfers, Fowler was respectful in all of his responses, maintaining eye contact with each reporter as they asked recycled questions about the need to win majors, the mental grind of U.S. Opens and oh, Fowler's on-course fashion choices. (He wears high-tops!) The 27-year-old deftly avoided the headline quote.
Boring questions heed boring answers, so Fowler cannot take all the blame. Except we know that Fowler is a fun-loving guy. He chugs beers on stage with Dierks Bentley, organizes boozy trips to the Bahamas with his buddies and pulls locker room pranks on fellow players -- Snapchatting all the way. Lexi Thompson has said he's "more fun than a barrel of monkeys." Fowler lets us see it, but only on his terms, and never at the podium. Some players would scoff at a question a reporter asked Fowler Tuesday about the toughest hole he’s ever played in a U.S. Open. “It's kind of hard to pick out one," Fowler said. "There's not really any easy holes, so you can make any hole the hardest one out there with one little mistake.”
Is he too nice to win a U.S. Open? That’s a better question. Michael Bamberger of SI wrote this: "Something is holding Fowler back, and it's not his talent or technique or course management. It's not because he's having too much fun off the course. It's not the hightops. What he lacks is Raymond Floyd's stare, Nick Faldo's self-absorption, Vijay Singh's nasty streak. Watch Fowler with fans and sponsors and other players, in his TV interviews and his acting gigs. You can tell: He likes being liked, and he needs to be liked. Nothing wrong with that. But what Tiger needed was for you to get the hell out of his way now."
Fowler is obviously an excellent player. But he's not a "get the hell of out my way now" type of player. He’s ranked No. 5 in the world and has earned more than $23 million on the course in his career. But he has yet to be the last man standing on one of those four Sundays each year.
In 2014, he was close. All together now: He was the third player ever (joining Jack and Tiger) to finish in the top-5 in all four majors. But last year, he did not continue the major momentum and placed 12th in the Masters, missed the cut at Chambers Bay and finished 30th at the British Open and PGA Championship. Sprinkled in was a macho victory at the Players (his signature win thus far in a seven-year career) and wins at the Scottish Open and Deutsche Bank Championship. It was a really good season.
He kept it going in January at the HSBC Championship in Dubai, his fourth win in nine months, and put together a solid February and March leading up to the Masters. But he bombed at the Masters after a first-round 80 en route to a missed cut and enters this week with two straight missed cuts at the Players and Memorial.
Or is he? His stats say otherwise. He ranks fifth in strokes gained tee-to-green this year, a category he’s never ranked higher than 26th in his career. He’s hitting more than 70 percent of his greens in regulation, ranking third this season. His past four season ranks were 106th, 100th, 134th and 98th.
His putter is the only issue, and those stats are pretty varied. He's really good inside 10 feet, but drops to horrible from 10-20 feet. He's 32nd in three-putt avoidance and 28th in approach putt peformance. He's 42nd in strokes gained putting. He's just not scoring.
“The only reason that I've struggled a little bit here and there is just because I've been a little bit frustrated with the putting, and that can sometimes leak over into driving the ball and then hitting a good shot into the green,” Fowler said. “So I'm looking forward to seeing the ball go back in the hole.”
Unfortunately for Fowler, Oakmont is a course that creates putting woes, not fixes them. At Augusta National, the only venue on the schedule that can resemble anything close to Oakmont’s slippery putting surfaces, Fowler three-putted twice in two rounds. Not a bad mark, but the complexes this week will be more severe and penal. Fowler spoke reverently about Oakmont's greens, calling them the "craziest" he's ever played.
“I feel like I've always been a strong putter,” Fowler said. “To not see putts go in the past few tournaments is tough. It's a fine line. It's all a process. A major will come. If I put the last two years together, that would equal a major this year, but they don't come that easy. So we've got some work to do, and looking forward to chasing those guys down.”
If Fowler is the last man standing come Sunday night, he'll be whisked into the media center after photo shoots and scorecard signings. With the major-title burden lifted, perhaps Fowler would let us in more.
Now that'd be a press conference worth going to.