LA QUINTA, Calif. – Rickie Fowler showed up at the American Express with a new look and a new attitude. The look was something close to a full beard.
“Still can’t grow sideburns,” he said.
It only seems like he’s been growing it since last year’s tournament here, where he had the 36-hole lead before the birdies stopped falling and he settled for a T-10 finish. Believe it or not, Fowler hasn’t recorded a top-10 finish since.
That drought may continue as Fowler posted an uneven round of 1-over 73 at PGA West’s Nicklaus Tournament Course, which means he’ll have his work cut out just to make the cut when he plays on Friday at the more difficult Stadium Course at PGA West. Count Fowler among those who were ready to turn the calendar and say so long to a forgettable season.
“By far the worst year that I had,” he said. “A lot of people want to get rid of 2020 and that’s my outlook.”
Fowler, 32, started revamping his swing in September 2019 with instructor John Tillery and it remains a work in progress. He conceded that the Tour’s three-month break due to the global pandemic didn’t serve him well.
“It’s been a battle,” he said. “But it’s part of golf. There’s going to be setbacks, there’s going to be tough times, and I think it’s more about how you deal with those tough times and come out on the back end.”
Fowler has tumbled to No. 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking, down from No. 25 a year ago and No. 10 at the 2019 Masters. He currently isn’t qualified for the 2021 Masters and hasn’t made reservations to be there yet, though he isn’t losing sleep over it just yet.
“I need to play well and get myself in there,” he said. “In a way, I feel like I’ve performed well when my back is against the wall.”
Fowler said he’s made progress working on his game at home. His putting, always a strong suit, slipped last season, but he inserted a mallet putter in the bag last fall in Las Vegas and noticed an improvement in starting his putts on line. For proof, he poured in a couple of long-range bombs on the inward nine Thursday, including a 50-footer at his last hole, No. 9.
“It’s more mental than anything,” Fowler said of getting used to the changes he’s made to his swing. “It’s like getting used to wearing a mask.”
In the opening round, his driver let him down as he hit only 9 of 14 fairways.
“I thought that was the least of my worries,” he said. “But that’s golf. Once you feel like one thing is in the right spot or heading the right way, it kicks you in the nuts.”