The first time Rickie Fowler came into the Media Center at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship it was to fill us in on how he took down, “Mr. Match Play,” Ian Poulter. It was highly improbable that this would happen; it was highly improbable that “The Kid” would be able to handle all of that experience, skill and match-play reputation. And everybody thought so: did you pick Fowler when you filled out your bracket? Even Rickie wouldn’t have picked Rickie:
Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean Poulter was obviously favored. I knew — if I was picking a bracket and I was an outsider looking in, I probably would have picked Poulter. He’s played well here and in match play. I went into it, I knew I was the underdog, I knew I had somewhat nothing to lose. I missed three cuts, unfortunately. I’ve been swinging really well, and the results haven’t been showing. I knew I was playing well and just had to go out there and strike the ball well.
And you should have ignored him for no other reason than that he switched coaches to the eminent Butch Harmon, the best coach in professional golf. People shied away from picking Fowler, not because there was anything wrong with Butch, but because swing changes are very problematic even though Butch is known for tweaking around the edges, not total transformations.
I knew any sort of change is tough, it’s going to take time. The first time I hit balls with him was actually after I missed the cut at the Open Championship last summer, and I said, come take a look, tell me what you think. And obviously ended up starting to work full‑time. It was back in November.
But some of the stuff, just trying on the range there felt completely foreign. I felt like a hack on the range, I was fatting and thinning them. So kind of interesting to think that I was headed the right direction doing that. And to where I am now. The golf swing feels really good. I feel like when I am — when everything is clicking it’s a lot more efficient. I’m hitting the ball harder and I feel like I have a lot of control over it.
So what exactly were Butch and he working on? For someone with a reputation as a low-impact coach, it was a pretty long list:
Well, cleaning up the backswing, as far as I used to take it outside and kind of reroute [coming back down], the club would get laid off. So now everything is a little bit more kind of straight back, straight back down. But try to keep the hands as far away from the head as possible, creating a bit of space there.
Trying to shorten up the backswing and one of my tendencies was my spine angle. I kind of, on the backswing, it would get to where I was steep and it was tough to shallow out the club. So trying to stay back on my right side and keep everything shallow through.
And then working on getting the upper body and the head moving through the ball a little bit better. I got into some habits where I’d kind of hang back and have to flip the club to save it. It feels really good. I’ve made a lot of good swings.
How did the choice narrow down to Butch? It was an all-hands-on-deck meeting with his team…and an old friendship that ratified that this was what was meant to be.
Well, I really hadn’t had anyone since kind of, I’d say, high school. My coach that I grew up with, Barry [McDonnell], once I went to college, obviously I didn’t see him a whole lot just because I was in Oklahoma [at OSU]. And he passed away almost three years ago. But he wasn’t as involved. I maybe saw him two or three times a year tops through those last five years or so after high school.
So I’d say 2012, 2013, when I was dealing with low back issues and pain around L4, L5 and SI, a lot of it was just swing related. I was just putting a lot of stress on my low back. And once I was dealing with not swinging great, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted, didn’t feel like I had the control I wanted.
Between me and my caddie and my agent and people that are close to me, we felt that Butch was the best at what he does, and he’s probably the most respected around the game as a coach. So we thought, hey, might as well go for the best. And it was actually really cool.
I got a text from Bill, the guy who owned the driving range that I grew up at where I worked with Barry, him and Barry were really — I mean best friends. And I got a text from him about a month or two after I started working with Butch, and he had told — Barry told Bill that this was — right before he passed away he said, you know, when the time is right, Rickie should go work with Butch. So that was kind of the stamp of approval.
So it was pretty cool to get that. I know I’m doing the right thing and just have to be patient.
And he was nothing but patient with the great Poulter:
Well, obviously I knew it was going to be a tough match against Poulter. He’s been known to obviously play well here, play well in match play. And I knew I was going to have to stay in every hole, if possible. I had one hole I tried to make something happen, because I knew he was going to make probably a 4 on [the par-5] No. 11.
Other than that I struck the ball well, was able to rely on the golf swing and hitting good shots. I made two birdies on the front nine that I remember, but one was a two‑putt and one I hit to two inches. Didn’t really have to worry about the putter. Hopefully I can get the putter warmed up and make some putts, because I’m going to need them tomorrow.
I was very interested in his comment that he couldn’t remember his birdies. That’s unusual because making birdies is the number one priority for professional players. In the Media Center, one of the pro forma questions is always, “Run through your birdies for us.”
Q. You said at the beginning that you couldn’t remember your birdies. Was that because they were so simple or because you were so into it?
Well, they were simple. I didn’t have to make a putt, which was kind of nice there on the front nine. I really just tried to stay in the moment, keep focusing on each shot, each hole. And you can’t really think about what happened in the past. I feel like you can make a lot of birdies in match play and not really know what you shot just because you’re focusing on each hole, one hole at a time.
Q. Is that where you were today?
Yeah, I tried to just keep playing each hole, just trying to do anything I could to win the hole against Poulter. Or halve. A halve against Poulter is pretty good. Once I got up, just tried to stick with the game plan and hit good shots and just hang on.
So with all of that as prologue, I wanted to see how he was going to do with the hottest player on the planet, Jimmy Walker.
I got to the first tee just as Fowler was addressing his ball. And knowing his proclivity for playing with a dashing style, I was shocked that he seemed frozen over the ball. It was just for maybe three extra beats, but it was way beyond normal and I thought, “Oh, no. He’s in his head over his swing.”
But he finally pulled the trigger on all the swing changes and launched a perfect, towering cut that ended up in the right side of the fairway with a perfect angle into the pin. And thus began a titanic match that was an open question to the very last hole. I was walking with another writer and we kept gleefully saying, “This is a great match.”
Late in the match with Walker 1-Up, Fowler hits it stiff on 14 for a conceded birdie to get back to all square. Then on the drivable 15th, he pumps a towering draw into the left desert. It wasn’t a bad looking shot, it was just very tight up there and he pulled it. I couldn’t get over to see, but he was down the desert embankment with his ball impeded by some old cart path concrete that had been dumped in the desert.
Well, that made it an immovable obstruction and he got relief. On a loose desert lie and way below the green to a tight pin he couldn’t even see — his target was carrying a short tree on his line — he took a gallant swing at it and one-hopped it into an airy, yellow bush just over the crown of the hill. He took a while to decide that he might be able to power it through the bush and it didn’t end well for that part of the bush. But he got his ball down in the rough just off the green. He missed the little pitch shot and went back to 1-Down. It was an heroic, never-say-die moment, but it looked like the inevitable was upon him.
But with Walker outside him on the same line on the 247-yard, par-3 16th, Walker just misses, giving Fowler the line and the birdie. Back to all square. On 17, with Fowler just in the left rough, Walker tees his drive very low to be able to hit a reliable cut into play. But he overdoes it and ends up on the right hillside in deep rough with a semi-blind shot to the green.
Fowler makes a very long, across-the-entire-green, two-putt, and Walker can’t get up and down from having missed the green. Fowler 1-Up on the way to the 18th tee.
But the drama didn’t end there. Fowler hits a terrific drive that looked for all the world that it carried the bunker in the middle of the fairway…but didn’t. Walker plays 3-wood to stay further back in the fairway, a smart concession for one of the longest players on Tour. But Fowler plays what looked like a sand wedge but had to be at least a gap wedge (because of the distance) out of the bunker, they trade pars and Fowler wins. It was a great match. And that wasn’t lost on Fowler either:
You have got to beat whoever you play in match play or else you’re going home. Simple as that.
To get the win yesterday against [Poulter] probably one of the best match play players there is, and then today against Jimmy, he’s, I mean, arguably the best player the last six months or so with three wins. He’s obviously on top of his game. I knew coming in today that even if he didn’t bring his A game, he was going to be tough to beat.
We had a fun match. We had a good time out there. Definitely nice to come out on top.
Definitely a bit of an understatement too, but it got him his match today with a resurgent Sergio Garcia (who went 22 holes with Marc Leishman and 3 and 1 with Bill Haas) in the second match off.
I know where I’ll be today.