ORLANDO, Fla. — As range sessions go, this one seemed pretty routine. Rickie Fowler spent considerable time practicing late Tuesday afternoon at the Bay Hill Club, and he was not alone.
Part of the process each week is to spend time preparing, and Fowler was doing just that, although if you wanted to read that there may have been more to it, certainly that’s possible.
Fowler has been in search of his game for the better part of two years. His coach, John Tillery, has been alongside. At times, there were some errant shots and quizzical looks showing that the quest is still real.
"It’s been a grind," Fowler says.
Long viewed among the game’s stars, Fowler, 33, is now ranked No. 122 in the world. It’s been more than three years since the last of his five PGA Tour victories. His tie for third last fall at the CJ Cup was one of just two top-10 finishes in the past 12 months.
Fowler, somewhat incredibly, is not in the field for next week’s Players Championship, where in 2015 he posted a dramatic playoff victory and seemed poised for bigger things.
"Yeah, it sucks. It is what it is," Fowler says. “I haven’t played good enough. I know I still have a chance here. I’m just focusing more on playing good golf and getting back to where I want to be. It’s not about getting into certain events. If I just play well, everything else will kind of fall into place. (The Players is) one you don’t want to miss. It’s obviously a special one being that I’ve won it before and played well there. But like I said, play better and things fall into place.’’
For all of his struggles, Fowler has managed to keep outward appearances positive, keeping the down times in stride and attempting to have perspective.
Last year, he missed the Masters for the first time since his first year as a pro — and spent part of the first round watching it with Tiger Woods at Tiger’s South Florida home.
After a tie for eighth at the PGA Championship, Fowler had to endure final qualifying for the U.S. Open and missed that major championship as well.
He was in contention and in the final group at the CJ Cup played in Las Vegas, eventually tying for third behind winner Rory McIlroy. It was his best finish since he tied for second at the Honda Classic in 2019 and seemed like he might be in a position to make a move in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Instead of building on that result, however, Fowler needed to tend to family matters. His wife, Allison, had the couple’s first child, a girl named Maya, in November.
“There was a lot good stuff there," Fowler says of the CJ Cup. “Didn’t play well afterward but then went into having quite a bit of time off and it was all planned. I wouldn’t change that for anything but being able to be there and spend time with the family. And that timing worked out great for all of that.
“But it kind of made it tough in a way to take that good play there and roll with it. It was like, ‘Okay, that’s it.’ It was time to spend time with family. Hang around relatives. And then I was trying to pick back up where we were. Not that we’re working on the same stuff. We’re always trying to make things better. But it’s been a grind."
Fowler is a good bit removed from that magical victory in 2015 at TPC Sawgrass, where five times in six tries he birdied the par-3 17th hole. It included three straight times during the final round, once in regulation and twice in a playoff that, at the time, produced what as an elusive victory.
It had been three years since Fowler had captured a PGA Tour title — and one of its biggest — at a time when there were those who believed his hype far exceeded his resume.
Those questions dog him today, as he is mired in a slump that remains perplexing. Fowler has seen his play around the greens suffer, which was followed by the deteriorating aspects of other parts of his game. He’s been working with Tillery for the better part of two years, the results not matching the progress he often sees away from the Tour.
Fowler was ranked just outside of the top 50 following the 2019 season and has steadily dropped since. He had a brief resurgence with his eighth-place finish last May at the PGA Championship and again when he contended in October.
However, 2022 began with three consecutive missed cuts, and he’s once again fighting to find his way.
“I would (still) say I am enjoying it," he says. “As much as playing poor golf at times is a big bummer, it sucks. Everybody goes through tough or low points our whatever it may be. Especially in this game, you’re never going to always be at the top. I’m just trying to ride it out, keep pushing forward.
“I almost at times have to pull myself back and keep myself from spending too much time because if you sit out here for too long or do too much stuff or do it for consecutive days in a row, you’re just going to beat up your body. You have to stay healthy to go through the process as well."