KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Forget trying to beat the top 100 players in the world, a group Rickie Fowler is no longer part of. Lately, he’s been struggling to beat Michael Jordan in money games at Jordan’s private club, the Grove.
Of course, Fowler has to give Jordan 10 shots per round.
“I think not having to hand out any money to M.J. has probably been the bigger wins because of how Grove sets up for him,” Fowler said Thursday after he opened the PGA Championship with a 1-under 71. “So if I don’t lose money to him, that’s actually a win.”
Fowler will take wins where he can find them. The last of his five on the PGA Tour came in early 2019. Once considered one of the best players without a major championship, Fowler hasn’t had a top-10 finish anywhere since January of last year, during which time he has fallen from 25th in the world to his current ranking of 128th.
He missed the Masters for the first time in a decade — watching it on TV with Tiger Woods, who is recuperating from a car crash — and needed a special invitation to compete this week on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. He would need a rapid ascent in the rankings to avoid having to qualify for next month’s U.S. Open.
“Obviously, very appreciative to have the opportunity to be here,” Fowler said. “I think it’s a little more motivation to go take advantage of it.”
Fowler is retooling his swing with instructor John Tillery. The grind has been frustrating, and before Thursday, the improvement he was seeing hadn’t translated into good scores.
Putting has historically been a strength, but that part of his game had gone cold, too, even after he felt like his swing had turned the corner.
“It’s been tough. Especially knowing that at times, tee to green, it’s been a lot better than what things may show or look,” Fowler said. “It’s nice to at least make some putts today.”
Fowler’s struggles have been magnified because he remains one of the more popular players in golf, with multiple endorsement deals and a thriving career as a TV pitchman that prompted Nick Faldo, among others, to suggest he’s spreading himself too thin.
He’s a mainstay in featured groups at PGA Tour events, the cameras still on him as he hovers around or beneath the cut line.
“It’s tough for anybody regardless, spotlight or not, because you deal with the personal and mental struggle on your own,” Fowler said. “It’s hard. It doesn’t matter whether people are watching or not, but it adds a little bit if they are.”
The demanding Ocean Course, where anything even par or better was a good score, might seem like an unlikely venue for Fowler to flash some form. His playing partner Adam Scott opened with a triple bogey and shot 78.
Fowler was 2 over through six holes but didn’t make another bogey and sprinkled in three birdies, the last after a shot to 5 feet on the intimidating par-3 14th. The best of his pars was probably on the par-5 16th, when he hit driver off the deck from 256 yards — with his third shot.
“Had a great number for driver off the deck. Three-wood couldn’t get there. It could have. It was just going to be more work,” Fowler said. “I love hitting driver off the deck, so it worked out to have a good number there.”
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