Rickie Fowler reflects on Phoenix Open win that followed heartbreak and close calls

SAN DIEGO – Champagne is for celebrations but can double as the perfect elixir to wash away sorrows, the bubbly mindful of good times while providing the ideal rejection of past disappointment.

Thus it was for Rickie Fowler when he popped the bottles in the media center following the conclusion of last year’s 85th edition of the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. Brimming from ear to ear, Fowler toasted to his long coveted victory at the Greatest Show on Grass and drank away the memory of excruciating frustration at The People’s Open.

“I finally got the job done at a place I love,” Fowler said of his fifth PGA Tour title.

It was love at first sight for Fowler when he saw TPC Scottsdale and played in front of the massive crowds in the Phoenix Open. The tournament isn’t for everyone, but for Fowler, who grew up in action sports and is an adrenaline junkie, the energy pulsating from the first tee to the 18th hole gives him a charge.

“The crowd can get a little hectic at times. But for that one week of the year, it makes for a pretty damn great tournament,” Fowler said.

Try as hard as he did and playing as well as he did, he just couldn’t win the pretty damn great tournament. He finished second in his rookie year of 2010. Tied for fourth in 2017. Was the 54-hole leader in 2018 before a 73 sent him reeling to a tie for 11th.

But it was the painful loss in 2016 that haunted him from time to time, when he squandered a two-shot lead with two to play and subsequently lost a playoff on the fourth extra hole to Hideki Matsuyama. That loss left him in tears as he was trying to win on the PGA Tour for the first time in front of his dad, Rod, and grandpa, Taka, who taught him the game.

And then more heartbreak seemed to be in the offing in 2019. After a pair of 64s and a 65, Fowler led by four shots after 54 holes.

“A lot of things stand out for me when I think back to last year’s win,” Fowler said during a practice round at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. “Going out and getting myself into a very comfortable lead stands out. And then also to have something significant happen in the final round and then going head to head down the stretch knowing what needed to be done after I had come back to the field.”

Rickie Fowler makes a triple-bogey 7 after two balls went into the lake on the 11th hole during final round of the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course. Photo by Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic

The significant something? Fowler doesn’t want to talk about it. Who can blame him? With a five-shot lead, Fowler came to the par-4 11th hole and then met golf horror. With rain picking up and after missing the green with his approach, Fowler’s chip to the green skidded on the wet surface and raced off the green into a water hazard. After taking a penalty drop, he walked up to the green to survey the situation and then saw his ball roll back into the water.

He had to take another penalty drop and made a 17-footer for a bizarre triple-bogey 7. Just ahead on the 12th hole, Branden Grace made a 50-foot birdie putt and Fowler’s lead was gone. Then Fowler fell behind when he bogeyed the 12th.

“And then we made a scratchy par on the par-5 13th which is very birdie-able,” said Joe Skovron, Fowler’s caddie. “From that point on, and with what was happening and with what happened in the past like in ’16 and ’17, for him to step up and hit the quality second shot he hit on 15, the quality drive he hit onto the green on 17, was just really impressive to see. To see his resolve and how he handled it to get the job done was impressive.

“The win meant a ton. We’ve wanted to win that tournament so bad. I live there. We’d been so close. His family was there, we’d had heartbreakers there, so, with all that, it meant a lot to both of us. That one was a big one for us.”

After falling behind, Fowler birdied two of the final four holes – the par-5 15th and par-4 17th – and made a solid up-and-down par on the finishing hole to top Grace by two shots. Shortly after the final putt dropped, Fowler embraced his wife, Allison, and then Skovron. Then he found his dad and mom, and grandpa and grandma, who got the winning golf ball from her grandson.

It was Fowler’s first win in front of his grandparents, first win in front of his father, first win as a married man, first win in front of Skovron’s parents.

“A lot of boxes were checked,” smiled Fowler, who had five more top-10s after his Phoenix win. “It’s hard to put into words.”

The win, Fowler said, brought things around full circle at the tournament. He received his first sponsor’s exemption there, in 2009, and is now a champion.

“The Thunderbirds are special,” Fowler said. “I’ve had a great partnership with them. They went out on a limp when they gave me a spot. They do a lot of good for the community there. I have a lot of good friendships with multiple Thunderbirds.”

Rickie Fowler after winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Feb. 3 at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course.

He has a new relationship with golf coach John Tillery. When Fowler’s longtime coach, Butch Harmon, decided to cut back on his travel, Fowler started working with Harmon’s son, Claude. But last year, Fowler turned to Tillery.

“It got to a point where it felt like I wanted to do something new, hear something new,” Fowler said. “It was nothing against Claude and obviously nothing against Butch. There aren’t any issues there. Just wanted to do something new.”

Fowler said he and Tillery work more on how the body works to put the club in the proper positions instead of Fowler trying to put the club in the right positions. The focus is more on what the body can do to make the swing better.

One drill that helps Fowler improve his swing with his lower body is what he calls the Southern Shuffle, where he lifts his left foot and then replants it a split second after he begins his backswing. He did the drill during play in the American Express, where he tied for 10th. In his previous start, he tied for fifth in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

“I was just doing it for rhythm and sequencing,” Fowler said of the Southern Shuffle. “Helped me with transitions.”

Fowler said everything is good on and off the golf course. He’ll chase that elusive major championship win again this year. He’ll eye making the USA team for the Ryder Cup and the USA team for the Olympics.

But his focus always will be on the present.

“The big thing for me is focusing on what we’re currently working on. And getting better tee to green and getting tighter with my irons,” he said. “Working on playing well and playing the best I can every week.

“I would have liked to have more wins by now. But it’s not the easiest thing to do, win out on the PGA Tour. It’s always great to defend a title. There are always good memories. I haven’t successfully defended, so it would be nice to change that. And I can go to Phoenix and win there again.”

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