A slump sent Rickie Fowler to Butch Harmon, and it’s paid off

November 21, 2014

This story appeared in the December 2014 issue of GOLF Magazine.

Rickie Fowler was 3 when he first toddled onto the Murrieta Valley Golf Range, halfway between L.A. and San Diego, with his maternal grandfather, Yutaka (Taka) Tanaka. Fowler was an active child, and Taka wanted to keep the boy busy while at the same time learning how to play golf himself.

The driving range pro, Barry McDonnell, gave the child a few games to keep him occupied. That led to more formal lessons when Fowler was 7. Little Rickie had a good, albeit unorthodox, swing. He insisted on using regulation-length clubs, which he brought back outside and rerouted at the top in order to deliver the club from the inside without banging the turf. That was okay with McDonnell, who preached target golf more than mechanics. He decided he could have the greatest impact on Fowler’s mental game. “I’m going to build him a great golfing mind,” he told his friend and driving range co-founder, Bill Teasdall, “and by the time he’s 20, he won’t even know where it came from.”

Rory McIlroy had the best year in 2014, but Fowler wasn’t far behind his fellow 25-year-old. He netted top-5s in all four majors, ascended to top 10 in the world, and was easily the Tour’s most improved player. His new partnership with Butch Harmon (they began working together in December 2013) had paid big dividends. The path Fowler followed to Harmon is a tale that starts with young Rickie’s beloved former coach.

McDonnell taught from the shade of a pepper tree—the Hogan Tree, he called it. No one ate the peppers, and the tree never grew to the height McDonnell envisioned, but it anchored McDonnell, whose grandfather had taught under a tree at the Country Club of New Bedford, about an hour south of Boston.

Clad in golf cap, slacks, and a long-sleeved shirt—he’d had a bout of skin cancer—McDonnell would smoke a cigar and watch from a chair, amid the white noise of the nearby freeway, as Fowler launched shot after shot. “Looks good,” McDonnell would say. “I like it,” Fowler would say of a given swing tweak. They didn’t talk much on the range. They didn’t have to.

“They understood each other,” says Rod Fowler, Rickie’s father.

Young Rickie was “Little Hawk” to McDonnell, “Rick” to the rest of his inner circle. So clean and consistent was Fowler’s contact that by the time he was 10, it was clear to McDonnell that the kid was something special. Fowler never tired of hitting balls, scorching the earth on the range for so many hours that his mentor would finally tell him to just go play. Learn how to score. “Go try and beat Old Man Par,” McDonnell said. Fowler tried, and he did.

Still, talent and hard work don’t guarantee greatness. Driving range owner Teasdall had tried to reach the Tour under the tutelage of McDonnell but got no further than the finals of Q-School in 1974. Thus McDonnell had learned what worked and what didn’t, lessons he never forgot when teaching Fowler. “I felt like I made each step at the right time,” Fowler says today. “I went into each one ready to contend.”

Fowler was 12 the first time he played outside California, at an IJGA event in Arizona. He won. He was 15 when he played his first AJGA event. He won again. In his freshman year of high school, with McDonnell and Murrieta Valley Night-hawks golf coach Greg Ireland in his gallery, Fowler fired a 62 to win the SCGA High School Championship. “That’s when I knew he was special,” Ireland says. “I think he won by six.”

Fowler spent two years at Oklahoma State and turned pro in 2009. He was Rookie of the Year and made the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2010. He thumped Phil Mickelson at the 2011 Match Play.

And that was all McDonnell saw; the old coach died of a heart attack in May 2011, at age 75. He hadn’t felt well for some time. He talked often about dying. Teasdall, then 62, tried to redirect those conversations. What about McDonnell’s wife? “She’s fine,” McDonnell said. And his daughter? “Fine.” Both men came to tears as they spoke of how much they’d meant to each other.

One day at lunch, McDonnell said a curious thing to Teasdall: “Butch Harmon would be good for Rick.”

McDonnell didn’t want a funeral. Instead, Teasdall held an informal get-together at the driving range. A table was set up, holding framed photographs, newspaper clippings and some of McDonnell’s pen-and-ink drawings. Fowler attended, blending into the crowd in a blue T-shirt and a backward Puma cap. He did not speak. Both Rickie and fellow introvert McDonnell, whom he called “Big B,” were always as quiet as Hogan.

It was a somber time, but Fowler soldiered on. He picked up his first (and still only) win at the 2012 Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow, where he beat McIlroy and D.A. Points in a playoff. With that maiden Tour trophy on his mantel, it seemed the can’t-miss kid was about to launch into orbit. He didn’t. He missed cuts at the 2013 Players and British Open. He got into contention at that year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational but found water at the par-5 16th hole, shot 73 and tied for third.

With McDonnell’s words echoing in his ears, Teasdall wondered if he should mention Harmon, but he felt it wasn’t his place to intervene. He didn’t have to.

In November 2013, at the Australian PGA, Fowler sat down in his hotel room with his caddie and agent for an honest self-assessment. Woods was back at No. 1, McIlroy had two majors, Jason Day was knocking on stardom’s door. Fowler? He hadn’t had a coach for almost three years, and was winless since his breakthrough at Quail Hollow.

“I had initially hit balls with Butch after I missed the cut at the [2013 British] Open,” Fowler says. “I was making too many funny mistakes, and I wasn’t getting as much out of my game as I wanted to.”

Harmon seemed like a natural fit for Fowler. Like McDonnell, Harmon was raised by an East Coast teaching professional. Like McDonnell, he knows not to force one swing on every student—he’s coached varying motions, from herky-jerky (Natalie Gulbis) to technically perfect (Tiger Woods and Adam Scott).

The Fowler-Harmon partnership became public in January of this year, and Teasdall finally texted Fowler:

“Glad to see you are going to Butch. One of the last things Big B said to me was, when the time is right, Rickie should go to Butch. You and Big B always thought alike. I’m happy for you, and I’m sure Big B is too.”

Fowler texted back:

“Can’t tell you how much it means to have Big B’s blessing on this. I’m looking forward to see what we can make happen in the coming years.”

“I never met him,” Harmon says of McDonnell, “but Rickie told me about him, that he’d recommended me. I’ve looked him up online because Rickie talks about him a lot. Rickie was so—I guess you’d say entrenched with him, because he was as much a granddad as an instructor.”

After having gone so long without a coach, Fowler’s hands were getting too close to his body, and his arm plane was too flat on the takeaway, which led to the club getting “stuck” or trapped behind him. Unless his timing was perfect, he was susceptible to hooks. Fowler also had lower-back pain. He twice visited Harmon in Las Vegas, but mostly they swapped video over their smartphones. Fowler moved his hands higher at the top, his arms farther out in front of him.

Progress was halting early in 2014, as Fowler missed three straight cuts on the West Coast. On March 28, Rickie asked Teasdall via text if he had anything bearing McDonnell’s signature. Teasdall found his late friend’s John Hancock on a photo and texted the image to Fowler, who now sports a tattoo of McDonnell’s autograph on the inside of his left wrist.

Fowler tied for fifth at the Masters, at the time his best finish in a major. But he then fell back again, as if Harmon’s fixes hadn’t held.

By late May, Fowler had missed the 36-hole cut in two of his previous four starts and the 54-hole cut in another. As he made the turn in the second round of the Memorial, he was cruising toward yet another Friday departure.

“To his credit,” Harmon says, “he hung in there.”

For his second nine, Fowler, already 4-over for the event, started hitting a controlled cut off the tee rather than the sweeping draw that had defined his game—and that sometimes missed the fairway by miles. He shot 3-under on that nine for a second-round 70, and while he did miss the cut, something had clicked. He came in 13th at the FedEx St. Jude, then reeled off top-10s in six of his next seven starts. He finished two strokes behind winner McIlroy in the British Open and the PGA Championship.

“Rickie used to make a lot of double bogeys,” says Damon Green, Zach Johnson’s longtime caddie. “He’s still making birdies, but without the big mistakes. He’s more polished. Butch has got him taking the left side out of play by hitting that cut. He can take it at his target and just cut it right off there. And his putting has gotten better.”

Harmon feels 2015 could be big.

“The bigger the stage, the better Rickie plays,” the instructor says. “I think he’s going to win a lot. I think the floodgates are going to open.”

Rickie! Rickie! Over here! Fowler has just shot a 1-over-par 71 at the BMW Championship at Cherry Hills in early September. The score is more pit than cherry, but you wouldn’t know it from Fowler’s fine mood. He makes his way over to a metal barricade, and a girl swoons, “Oh, my God, I love you!” A little boy in a Puma cap and orange shirt shouts, “Rickie, I’m your favorite fan! The best fan in the world!”

No player on Tour has the allure of Fowler, whose multiethnic good looks—his mother is half Japanese, half Navajo—bring to mind Leonardo DiCaprio and Zac Efron. Meticulous about presentation, Fowler has been clothes conscious since high school. Back then, his license plates read: WHT BELT. Former Oklahoma State golf coach Mike McGraw recalls once handing out team uniforms—golf shoes, slacks, and so on. That night, he texted Rickie and roommate Kevin Tway to ask how it all fit, but the freshmen replied they didn’t know just yet—they were in the middle of a fashion show.

“We were looking at young talent and people who could cut through the clutter,” says Cobra-Puma Golf president Bob Philion. “We signed him the day he turned pro. I remember meeting his parents, and his mom saying, “Rickie is a trendsetter, and when he wears stuff, people around him tend to want it.” That has certainly been the case.” And not just for kids—Fowler is spawning fashion imitators among even men of retirement age.

“I liked him better with long hair, but I’m a girl,” says a woman at Cherry Hills. She’s attractive; she’s also roughly 40.

Having quietly parted ways with Alex-andra Browne, Fowler has been “single” (his word) for about two years. He went stag to the 2014 Ryder Cup, but was linked to bikini model Alex is Randock in October. “I like to keep my private life private,” he says. “These last two years, especially this last year, I’ve been able to gear down and really focus on the game, especially with Butch.”

At Cherry Hills, he works his way down the barricade, signing hats, programs, shirts. He looks into a friend’s iPhone and tapes a happy birthday message for the man’s niece.

“Rickie hasn’t changed since he was a kid,” says Josh Anderson, an aspiring Tour pro and one of Fowler’s old high school teammates. “The money and everything hasn’t gotten to him. That’s why people like him. He’s very genuine.”

Fowler’s one immodesty? His fleet of cars, including a Mini Cooper customized with orange rims.

He ties for fourth at the BMW at Cherry Hills and hangs around to congratulate former OSU teammate Morgan Hoffmann, whose weekend scores of 62-63 get him into the next week’s Tour Championship and the 2015 majors. They celebrate with a chest-bump.

Fowler has a slight build. His plan for 2015 is to get big—and not from eating his little sister Taylor’s oatmeal cookies or his mom Lynn’s tacos. (They travel with him to the majors and do all of the cooking.) Chris Noss, who has helped Camilo Villegas sculpt those famously bulging biceps, is one of Fowler’s two trainers. He says Rickie will get stronger—as in Rory strong—this offseason. (On average, McIlroy drove it 13 yards farther than Fowler in 2014.)

If it takes a village, McDonnell and Harmon are the village elders. Rod Fowler believes McDonnell taught Rickie the feel of the game, and even how to handle himself on the road. Mike McGraw, who now coaches at Baylor, says McDonnell fulfilled his pledge to build a “great golfing mind,” infusing Fowler with confidence and resilience. “Rickie does a really nice job of forgetting the bad stuff,” McGraw says. He adds, “There weren’t many people Rickie could’ve gone to who would’ve understood him like Butch. I give Butch a huge amount of credit, too. He’s treated Rickie like an individual. I promise you Butch is not teaching Rickie the same way he’s teaching Dustin Johnson.”

Once a year at the Murrieta range, on the anniversary of McDonnell’s death, Teasdall and friends have a beer under the pepper tree. In the golf room at his home in Texas, McGraw has a set of McDonnell’s irons; having been raised by a teaching pro himself, McGraw also connected with McDonnell.

Meanwhile, Fowler plays on. Beneath the pastels and flat-brim caps, Big B is in there somewhere. He’s still sitting under his tree, offering a word of guidance. If you know where to look—whether it’s on Rickie’s wrist or in his steely glare—you’re bound to see the old pro’s signature, one way or another.