DUBLIN, Ohio — Playing poorly is private hell for a professional golfer, unless you’re someone like Rickie Fowler — a hugely popular player who carries the weight of his own expectations as well as the added pressure of an audience whose support teeters on the edge of adoration and demand.
Every popular player has felt the burden of playing for the crowd while competing for themselves. The late Arnold Palmer once spoke of the pressure of hitting good shots and the resulting sense of hopelessness that sometimes overwhelmed him as he tried to deliver. Lord knows that when Tiger Woods had his struggles, especially that weird time when he struggled with yapping, there was nowhere to hide, with each of his misfires causing national twist. And the headlines.
Fowler may not have the record of a Palmer or a Woods, but he does have the following. His popularity transcends a decent but not distinguished career. In the past, however, the California native could produce consistent rankings appearances and enough fireworks for a win here and there to the tune of five PGA Tour titles. This has allowed him to maintain a high global ranking and a consistent presence in the majors, not to mention his commercial appeal.
Fallow spells befall every golfer, but the fan favorites in the game suffer twice – for themselves and for the galleries. Jordan Spieth knows it. He struggled to live up to expectations, not just his own, as he went through a nearly four-year winless streak.
“Yeah, it’s hard having to deal with that feeling of letting people down,” Fowler said Thursday after opening the Memorial Tournament with a two-under-par 70, a satisfying score on a cool, damp morning that did nothing for the cold he is fighting. “I know the fans want me to play well, but no one wants it more than myself. You know, I try. I try as hard as I can.
Fowler is playing Memorial on a sponsor’s exemption because he fell to 135th in the world rankings and 112th in the FedEx Cup rankings, neither high enough for a bye in one of three elite invites. of the circuit. His invitation completed a sweep of invitations, as he also entered the Genesis Invitational and the Arnold Palmer Invitational on his name and not his numbers.
Fame has its perks, but it can’t get the ball in the cup. Last year, for the first time since turning pro, Fowler failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs, finishing 134th in the standings when the top 125 qualified.
His last win came at the 2019 WM Phoenix Open, the last year he appeared in all four major tournaments. Fowler, 33, has appeared in just three majors in the past two years and faces sectional qualifying for the US Open on Monday in Florida, opting to try his luck at his home course, The Bear’s Club, which happens to be the home of golf in the south. by Jack Nicklaus, host of the Memorial. Last year, Fowler failed to make it out of the section at Columbus.
“I thought it was better to play on a golf course that I knew,” he explained, choosing to jump on a plane on Sunday rather than stay in Ohio. At least he plans to make the cut this week, which hasn’t been quite a given, succeeding nine out of 15 times this season.
He almost didn’t play at Muirfield Village Golf Club, a place where he finished second in his rookie year. On Wednesday, he stayed in bed all day with a fever of 103 degrees, but came out on Thursday morning feeling well enough to do so, while clearly battling the sniffles and congestion.
At least he wasn’t fighting his golf game, which has produced just two top 10 finishes in the past two seasons combined. Although he finished with a bogey, Fowler was generally pleased with his overall effort on Muirfield Village’s revamped layout.
“I managed my way decently,” he said. “It was good, but nothing special. I mean, I’ll definitely take it, especially if I don’t have my full strength or power.
Fowler signed autographs for 20 minutes after the round, then spent another 20 with reporters. He’s good with his responsibilities as a ‘named’ player. Has always been. It’s a big part of his appeal, along with his cool clothes and, early in his career, a mop of hair that (in the parlance of the rules of golf) didn’t conform.
He’s always been one of the cool kids on tour, definitely one of the coolest. But he still needs to perform well enough to stay on tour.
Not that he doesn’t have the ability to play, you know, somewhere else. At the PGA Championship, where he finished T-23, he seemed open to playing rival LIV Golf Series, or at least considering it. He remains interested, but has decided to postpone the inaugural event to next week in London. “We’ve just kind of been in talks with them for a long time,” he revealed. “It’s something that you definitely have to look at and you know at this point it wasn’t the right move or the right move for me. But I’m leaving the options open and I kind of see how things are going. occur.”
How things play out probably depends on how he plays. Isn’t it always?
“It’s been a disappointment not to be where I know I should be, but when I’m home I manage. I’m not sitting at home doing nothing, you know? Fowler said. “I like the process of trying to improve myself, and I hope that eventually leads to much better results. In the meantime, I try to embrace the ups and downs.
And in the meantime, he’s enjoying the embrace of fan support. It is a blessing. It is also a curse. Because maybe in response he is trying too hard. He nods in agreement, but then offers a counter. “No one puts more pressure on me than I do on myself.
“Everyone faces some kind of adversity, whether it’s in sports or in life or otherwise,” he added. “It’s more about how you come back from this. If people want to see me play well, that’s fine, because I want to play well. And then we will all be happy.