HOYLAKE — So much has happened in Rickie Fowler’s life since the Open Championship was last held at Royal Liverpool in 2014, where he finished tied for 2nd.
He played in an Olympics. He added a few tattoos. He got married, and is now a father. He lost his game, hired a different swing coach, spiraled further, then bottomed out. He missed three straight Masters, two U.S. Opens and the Open Championship in a three-year span. He contemplated signing with LIV. He re-hired his old swing coach, they rewired his swing DNA dramatically. This time, something clicked for Fowler. He won a tournament for the first time in four years, climbed the world rankings, and is once again a factor in majors.
“Kind of weird to think how long ago it was,” Fowler said.
One thing, however, has not changed: Fowler still possesses the game’s best poker face. Rarely does he flinch, in good moments or bad. He is stoic and steady when others are quick to throw tantrums. And he needed that stoicism on the 18th hole of his opening round Thursday.
Fowler was standing in the middle of the fairway, 289 yards from the green, and in an ideal position. He’d struggled early in the round, but on the back nine, he was hitting the ball beautifully. He’d just made a birdie on the treacherous 17th, and he stood at 2-under par, tied for 5th place. Another birdie — or perhaps an eagle — would tie a bow on a banner day. Fowler figured he could thread a long iron between the two bunkers in front of the 18th green, and showed little hesitation as he stood over the ball. He drew the club back, and fired a low bullet in the direction of the green.
It was clear, as soon as the ball left the clubface, that a nightmarish result was unfolding. The ball drifted right, then farther right, and Fowler’s expression never changed as it sailed toward the out-of-bounds line that looms all along the right side of the 18th. As soon as it landed in the high grass, on the wrong side of the line, a marshal waved his arms to signal it was a goner.
“Obviously pissed off but nothing I can do about it now. Just had a bit of a hanging lie from the fairway and caught the first one a little low on the face,” Fowler said. “I was obviously trying to hit a low little hot cut and just [made] poor contact.”
With a quiet calm, Fowler turned to caddie Ricky Romano and asked for another ball. A more timid man might have chosen to lay back, but Fowler knew what shot he wanted to hit. He wiggled his feet, took aim (once again) for the right side of the green, and drew the club back.
The ball sailed right again.
It was not close to landing within bounds.
Watching a professional golfer spray consecutive shots out of bounds can be an uncomfortable thing to witness, and as Fowler dropped again and prepared to take his sixth stroke toward the green, a surreal murmur rippled through the crowd.
Were we witnessing a Tin Cup situation? How many times would he have to attempt this shot?
Mercifully, Fowler’s third attempt landed exactly where he wanted, precisely where he hoped the first one might have gone — his ball landed short of the green but threaded the two pot bunkers, then trickled forward and came to a stop near the back. A gentle lag putt left him with a tap-in for triple bogey, then a long, sobering walk to the scoring tent. His first two long irons had landed no more than 15 yards right of the 18th green, but at Royal Liverpool, that’s about 8 yards too much.
Fowler offered up a weary and wistful smile when asked by reporters to relive his ghastly finish. But he wasn’t interested in criticizing the much-debated internal out-of-bounds line at Royal Liverpool.
“It’s not like they just stuck it in there,” Fowler said. “We know it’s there.”
Those kinds of quirks are part of the reason Fowler loves golf in this part of the world.
“I think it’s fine,” Fowler said. “It’s part of links golf; you get some quirky stuff here and there, and it’s part of it. You’ve got different characteristics. It’s not like they just decided to put that up there. There’s plenty of little boundary walls in different places that come into play, and that’s part of links golf. Do I like it? Right now, probably not, but I think it’s part of links golf with some of the cool different characteristics that are kind of what make it so special.”
Fowler didn’t completely eject himself from the tournament, but it’s rare for anyone to make a triple bogey in a major and go on to win. Only two players — Tiger Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open and Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship — have pulled it off. He knows he’ll need to draw on some of the good feelings from 2014 to climb back into contention.
“It’s nice to know that we’ve had success around here,” Fowler said. “Even just from today, I didn’t swing it that well but still managed to get around for a decent round of golf. When you look at overall, 1-over isn’t terrible, but considering the finish it should have been a few shots better.”
Fowler has experienced just about everything on the golf course throughout his career, whether it’s young kids screaming for autographs with the fervor of Beatles fans or grown men following him around dressed, head-to-toe in orange. But Thursday’s round produced a genuine first: He was heckled by an English football fan.
The impetus? Fowler’s decision not to move forward with an investment in Leeds United F.C., which currently plays in the Championship League, the second division of English football.
“Someone called me a coward,” Fowler said, “They were a Leeds fan, and they gave me a hard time for not investing in Leeds. I think he should put his own money behind it if he wants to call me a coward.”
Asked if that was the first time he’d ever been heckled in his career, Fowler thought about it for several seconds and conceded that, yes, it likely was.
“It started with him saying ‘Why didn’t you go through with the investment?’ ” Fowler said. “I was just walking, he called me a coward and I turned around and he was laughing at me. Unfortunately you have to deal with that. I wouldn’t say our fans [in the United States] are any better but I don’t think that’s a position to call someone a coward for not investing in something.”
It was a strange day all around, but also, just another chapter in an eventful decade for Fowler. If he was annoyed, you couldn’t really tell. Who knows what tomorrow might bring?
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.