Rickie Fowler has won four times on the PGA Tour and amassed more than $34 million in career earnings. He has been in the top 10 in earnings three times and played on four Ryder Cup teams and two Presidents Cup teams. He has also done all of that while using a Titleist golf ball. Now in his 10th full season on the PGA Tour, Fowler is making a monumental shift in his equipment, changing to TaylorMade’s TP5x ball (the number 15, an homage to his motocross days) in a multiyear agreement that also will have him wearing the company's Tour Preferred Glove. Fowler spoke with Golf Digest’s equipment editor E. Michael Johnson on the process of making the switch, the new ball and how playing with Dustin Johnson in the Ryder Cup played a role in the decision.
This is a pretty big switch. How long have you been testing the ball, and what was the primary impetus for making the change?
I got a little bit of time with the golf ball during the season and did some initial testing to see if it was a road worth going down. Then I played with DJ [Dustin Johnson] at the Ryder Cup, and I would play his ball some in Foursomes, so I got to see it in tournament conditions and I was impressed. It was mostly driving the ball where he was hitting the approach shot, so I really waited until after the season to get time in with the golf ball. It’s been impressive.
You’re still in Cobra clubs. How much easier does it make it to be able to use clubs you have experience with when making a ball change versus changing clubs and balls at the same time?
I haven’t made any changes to my clubs, and I don’t plan to in order to accommodate the golf ball. I don’t want to be wondering if any adjustments I need to make are because of the ball or the club or what not. I’ve played the same irons for a number of years, so I’m used to seeing them fly a certain way, and that’s how I want them to fly. So that made it easier to make sure this was the right ball for me. The TP5x does launch a touch higher, but with a little less spin so on the back end of the flight it’s actually landing a little steeper. That makes up for the less spin.
I spoke with Rory McIlroy after he joined TaylorMade, and he said one of the things that really drew him to the ball was how it behaved in the wind. How much do you pay attention to what the ball does in the wind?
The cover and the dimples and the aerodynamics do a great job to where the ball doesn’t float in the wind. Into the wind or in windy conditions I want a golf ball that’s going to be strong, and this definitely is. I want it to fly through the wind, still hit my numbers and be consistent with it. It’s definitely been a fun winter testing in some of those conditions and seeing what the ball can do and learning a new golf ball. It’s longer. Driver, long and mid irons I’m picking up some yards and with the shorter clubs you’re making more of a glancing blow and not compressing as far into the ball toward the core, so those numbers stayed about the same from a distance standpoint. But if you get a little longer with the driver and long and mid irons, that can mean a club shorter into some holes and that’s never a bad thing. It’s nice when I’m in between clubs now to just take the shorter one, take my normal swing and trust it. I’ve had some of my buddies scratching their heads lately on some of the drives I’ve hit and clubs that I’ve pulled.
How much of an adjustment or recalibration of your yardages is that going to require?
Not very much. I’m very old school in some ways and very much a feel player. Things change so much on tour in terms of conditions that we have to be able to do that all the time. We’ll play at Torrey Pines this week where the conditions will be cool in the morning. It’s a place where the ball probably goes the shortest on tour. So we need to adapt to that. Other places the ball flies pretty good—like next week in Scottsdale in the afternoon the ball goes forever—so we have to adapt to that. So in terms of getting the yardages down with a new ball, it’s not an issue. We adjust all the time. You figure out how far your 7-iron is going at that particular time and kind of base your numbers off that for that day. It’s more that you want it to be consistent all the time, whatever the distance might be that day.
What’s your process for testing golf balls? You say you’re a little old school so do you rely on the launch monitor or is more what you see and feel on the course?
I would say it’s a combination of those two. I hit on the monitor to get some initial feedback and numbers and see how things matched up. Then it was spending the downtime playing with it in various conditions on my own. I think the best way to test is on the course. On the driving range is one thing, but actually hitting golf shots in different conditions and different temperatures and trying to hit different shots and seeing the ball fly how I wanted it to is how I make my decision on a golf ball.
Did you test both the new TP5 and TP5x? If so, what were the noticeable differences?
I did. I just felt there was more benefit to the TP5x. That’s not to say I might not try the TP5 at some point. It’s a great ball as well. It has a little more spin. But I liked the little extra distance I was getting with the TP5x. If I want something with a little more spin down the line then the TP5 would be a great option.
I’m sure over the years you became very in tune with people like Fordie Pitts and others at Titleist, and they were in tune with what your preferences were. Is there a learning curve in working with a new team of people at TaylorMade in that regard?
A little bit. It’s definitely different. I can’t say enough good things about the people at Titleist. I always had a great relationship with the people there over the years. From growing up playing with people like Peter Uihlein [son of former Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein] to being around Wally and Tina a bunch and working with Fordie and others, I have nothing but respect across the board for the people there. They did everything to allow me to play great over the years. But I’m looking forward to something new and some unique opportunities and working with people such as Keith Sbarbaro [TaylorMade’s VP of Global Tour Operations]. Keith has been out on tour for a long time so I know him well. I’ve also spoken with people like Phil Mickelson, who played with Keith in college. Keith also has been down at Medalist Club in Jupiter with DJ doing testing at times. I’ve spent a bunch of time with him and know him well, and I’m looking forward to working with him and getting to know everyone at TaylorMade even better.
Did you speak with any of the players other than DJ who use the TaylorMade ball to get some feedback from them not only on the product, but the support from their tour staff?
Not too much. Like I said, I did speak with DJ and play his ball. But I’ve always been interested in equipment and what guys play and what they like or don’t like. I’ve asked a few players about the ball over the years. It wasn’t asking because I was thinking of going to it, but just more a curiosity that a lot of players have as to what other players are using and why. I just like to talk shop. Different equipment works differently for different guys. Some want more spin and some want to fly it lower or others higher, so it’s difficult to base a decision for you on what someone else is playing. But I had heard a lot of good things about the ball over the last couple years.
Are you a guy that likes to know all about the technology of a product or do you simply focus on how it performs for you?
I definitely like to know. I’m intrigued by different technologies and how things work and how it affects a golf shot. For a ball, how the core or mantle layers affect speed or how you compress a golf ball or how the aerodynamic pattern of the dimples affects how it flies. When you look at the TP5x, there are five layers with each geared toward different parts of your game. I don’t think about it while I’m out testing, but I’m interested by all of that. I like to know why something does what it does.
When was the last time in competition—professional or back in your amateur days—that you played a ball other than Titleist?
That would be way back in junior golf when I was playing pretty much whatever ball I could get. Other than team events and playing other balls in alternate-shot, I don’t think I’ve played another ball in competition in quite some time. It’s going to be fun. I’m excited about it.