In danger of missing playoffs, Rickie Fowler reflects on 'make or break' slumps
There's a strange phenomenon we see in certain top-tier golfers, from Jordan Spieth to Harris English, where for reasons that look inexplicable from the outside, they enter into slumps that last around two years. Even a player like Rory McIlroy, while not slipping quite as far, has experienced these rhythms. Rickie Fowler is in the midst of his own worst career slump, deep into the second year, and enters this week's Wyndham Championship ranked 130th in the FedExCup Playoffs race—five spots out of qualifying—and needing a late boost to make the first postseason event next week at the Northern Trust Open. Most frustrating of all for Fowler is that he's as mystified as anyone.
"I wish I had a perfect answer for you because then maybe these two-year slumps or hiatuses or journeys through the forest wouldn't really happen," he said. "I mean, you can relate it to so many things to life. It's kind of just how everything goes, just the natural ebb and flow. No one's ever just riding the high for their whole life or whole career or whatever it may be. There's going to be ups and downs. And the guys that you see come back from it, I think it makes or breaks guys."
It's easy for a player to reflect on those make-or-break moments when he's come through to the other side, but less so when it's still uncertain whether he'll be made or broken. Fowler is not alone in his 2021 struggles—players like Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Tommy Fleetwood are all grinding from below the playoffs cut line—but his situation might feel more dire, as he's coming off a poor-by-his-standards 94th in the standings last season.
"In my terms," he said, "it would be like I'm trying to kickstart a dirt bike and just sitting there kicking, every once in a while kind of fire up, get going, get a few revs. I'll keep kicking, she's bound to start. There's been a lot of good stuff within the past four, five, six months, more and more, a little more frequently. It's been a bummer that I've been kicking this long, but we're still here kicking. It's a humbling game."
This season, Fowler has one top-10 finish—T-8 in May’s PGA Championship, which was followed by a T-11 at Memorial. Since then, he’s made four more starts, with a best finish of T-32.
Like others before him who have slumped, Fowler has had time and occasion to seek out perspective and reflect on how much golf means to his life and where it ranks in relative importance.
"I feel like I've been someone that's always had an appreciation for what we do get to do and understanding that things could be a lot worse," he said. "I've had people around me that have dealt with, whether it's cancer or being sick or just dealing with health problems ... something I always look back on, I think about Jarrod Lyle a lot, everything he went through with his three fights with leukemia. There's always someone in a worse position than you, so it's kind of just about appreciating what you have and trying to keep moving forward."
Barring a major late push, this will also be the first time since 2012 that Fowler has missed a Ryder Cup, though he leaves open the possibility of joining the team in a role similar to Bubba Watson's assistant captaincy at Hazeltine.
"If the guys wanted me there, I'd be there in a heartbeat," he said. "They're such fun weeks to be a part of whether you're playing or not. Some of my favorite times have been when I've sat out and basically got to be there as, you know, a makeshift assistant captain in a way. You're out there supporting the crew and being around."
Until then, Fowler has a chance to resuscitate one of the toughest years of his career, and salvage something with a late playoff run. It has to start in Greensboro, and with three straight made cuts, there's a chance. But unless he can jump five spots in the playoff rankings, he'll head into the offseason with more questions than answers, still fully mired in his own playing wilderness.