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After a Dominant Start to His U.S. Open, Rickie Fowler Hits a Wall on Sunday

The popular Californian shot 75 in the final group on Sunday, failing to stay in the mix at Los Angeles Country Club.

LOS ANGELES—Dressed in his Sunday orange, Rickie Fowler wore the look of a man destined to win his first major championship at the U.S. Open. He had been the rabbit in the championship, setting a torrid pace with 18 birdies in his first 36 holes. His record-setting 62 on Thursday on the Los Angeles Country Club North Course was a showcase of talent and ball-striking that fulfilled the grand expectations that came with him when he turned pro in 2009 out of Oklahoma State.

Then he hit a wall. Over his last 36 holes, Fowler had just five birdies. After starting the final round in a share of the lead with Wyndham Clark, Fowler’s decline on Sunday afternoon at LACC was a slow and meticulous unraveling, characterized by a succession of missed par putts that sent him tumbling down the leaderboard. For the first time in the championship, Fowler had a round where he had more bogeys (seven) than birdies (two). By the time the bleeding stopped his score for the day added up to a 5-over-par 75 for a 5 under par total, five shots behind the winner, Clark, with whom he was paired with in the final round. Fowler’s tie for fifth was his best finish in a major since a tie for eighth at the 2021 PGA Championship.

“I just didn't have it today,” Fowler said. “Iron play was very below average and I didn't make anything. That's a big thing in majors, especially on a Sunday. Making putts and kind of keeping it fairly stress-free. It was kind of the opposite. I was kind of fighting through it all day.”

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Fowler didn’t need a win at the LACC to reinvigorate his career. His resurgence has come with just qualifying for this championship. Last year, he was the first alternate at the U.S. Open at Brookline and had to endure the humiliation of spending the day at the course before ultimately not getting into the championship.

At LACC, Fowler was up close to the action all week, but he never found his groove on Sunday. After that blaze of fire on Thursday with the 62, he finally played LACC like a U.S. Open course that punishes sloppiness with easy bogeys. For the first three days, he had been the rabbit, setting the pace, forcing the rest of the field to watch what he was doing, but on late Sunday he found himself waiting for Clark to falter, waiting and hoping for circumstances to change that might give him a chance to win, despite his poor play.

The reality of his defeat came in the middle of the second nine when Clark’s clutch birdie at the par-5 14th hole put him five shots clear of Fowler and three ahead of his nearest competitor. “I knew I was on the outside looking in, but at the same time, you never know what's going to happen,” said the 34-year-old Murrieta, Calif., native. “You don't wish bad on anyone, but it's tough to close out tournaments.”

Fowler was not the only player waiting for Clark to falter down the stretch. Who was Clark to think that he could hold off the likes of Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler? Finishing a few minutes ahead of Clark and Fowler in the next to last group, McIlroy stood by waiting to see if he would get into a playoff.

“You don't want to wish bad on anyone, but you're really hoping for a three-putt,” McIlroy said. “You're hoping to somehow get into a playoff to keep giving yourself a chance. You're rooting for one guy, and that guy is yourself at that point. I guess you're just hoping for the other guy to slip up or make a mistake or give you a glimmer of hope.”

Fowler and McIlroy took time after their rounds to share notes. They spoke of struggling with distance putts and the slopes in the greens. “I think we both struggled with a lot of the uphill putts over the last few days because they started to put some pins on a lot more slope from Friday through the weekend,” Fowler said. “And even when you're underneath the hole, which is the proper side, with how much slope there is there, it's just hard to get yourself to actually hit it hard enough. You feel like you're going to blow it off the green or blow it five, six feet by, and that's the last thing you want is three or four percent slope and have a four- to six-foot slider.”

You would have thought with all of their major championship experience that one of them would have come away with this championship, but it was Clark, a 29-year-old Denver native with one PGA Tour win and his best finish in major a 76th in just seven major appearances, who stole the show.

Fowler has always been on the precipice of greatness—famously glorified and respected by the PGA Tour elite—but not a major champion. Clark is now something that he is not—a major champion—and at the end of the day that is what separates great players from popular and rich athletes like Fowler. That’s not a knock on Fowler for being famous and cool. He’s earned his status in the game, but this U.S. Open proved that major championships don’t always reward the most popular or best credential player.

Fowler will move on now to the next week on the PGA Tour, to the Travelers, outside Hartford, Conn., and then next month to the British Open at Royal Liverpool, where he finished in a tie for second in 2014, six shots behind McIlroy, who won the tournament. He’s back with Butch Harmon, who is as much his mental coach as he is his swing instructor. It’s the old Fowler, still dressed in orange, but with a new spirit and outlook on his game.

“I definitely think we're heading the right direction,” he said. “It's been nice to be back and have chances in tournaments or at least getting solid finishes and turning weeks that maybe not having my best stuff and maybe finish top 20 or top 10 or whatever it may be. I feel like I get more out of those weeks knowing that when I do have my good stuff, I know I can go in and go toe-to-toe with anyone.”

But on Sunday evening when the disappointment at LACC was still fresh, Fowler was able look past golf. Racing to sign that scorecard riddled with bogeys, he saw his young daughter, Maya, and was able to enjoy his family and the meaning of Father’s Day.