SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Rickie Fowler didn't possess, or hadn't showcased, the ability to close. It's one of the most damning criticisms of an elite athlete, and a growing narrative for Fowler in recent years. His proponents called it perception. Except that Fowler himself conceded as much at this year's Masters.
Fowler, who entered the final round at Augusta National with seven top-five major finishes but infamously no title, made a spirited run at the green jacket. He played the final 11 holes in six under, capped by a cold-blooded, "Did you see THAT?!" birdie drop on the 18th. Though it proved to be a stroke short, the charge was a revelation.
"It feels a lot different," Fowler said that Sunday. "This is the most … I mean, I am ready to go win a major, but this was kind of the first major week that I understood that and known that and felt that."
Though the moment ultimately belonged to Patrick Reed, to Fowler's fans—which there are many—the Masters didn't finish with end titles but "To be continued."
"It should be a very good major season,” Fowler said.
As the golf world converges on Southampton, the question is draped in more validity, and curiosity, than ever: Is this Rickie Fowler's time?
The official term is "coup d' oeil," translated to "stroke of the eye." It originates as military parlance, the ability for a commander to scope out a battlefield and know what needs to be done. The terminology has migrated to sports, like when a manager recognizes it’s time to pull the starter, or how LeBron James sees a passing lane that hasn’t opened. It's the reason why quarterbacks are called “field generals."
At first, that might not seem applicable to golf, where the only strategy revolves around your next shot. But the greats, if you look close enough, put it on display. Jack Nicklaus would famously play a hole backwards in his mind, figuring out where he needed to putt from, what approach offered that look, the drive that needed to begat the second shot. In his prime, Tiger Woods practiced a sweeping hook for the entire offseason, solely for the 13th at Augusta National. The best match-play competitor of all-time, Walter Hagen, allegedly would hit bad shots on purpose, knowing how demoralizing a save would be to his opponent’s psyche.
On the surface, a truckload of talent is needed for all three, and that's true to an extent. What sires that ability, however, is an underlying conviction. A key ingredient Fowler acknowledged had been missing, but gained at the Masters.
“I would say just confidence is the main thing,” Fowler said at Shinnecock on Wednesday. “I left there knowing that I could go win a major championship. I would say prior to that, I knew I could, but as far as validating it and really being there, and the way I played on the back nine and being in a position, I was there a year prior in contention, didn't get off to that great of a start and didn't play very well coming in.
“So to kind of flip the script and really have a chance and at least make Patrick earn it ... And that kind of solidified and validated my actual belief of what I can go do.”
A pivotal remark, because talent surplus has never been an issue with Fowler. Coupled with credence, it opens up a world of possibility.
"We all know I'm good enough to win," Fowler said. "I know I'm good enough to win. Being prepared and making it happen that specific week, there's been a few guys that have been very good at that -- Jack, Tiger. Phil didn't get his first for a while, so there's still hope. I'm not too worried about it. I'm excited about some of these courses that we have coming up, especially this week."
There’s a school of thought that says coup d' oeil is not a learned skill, but a gift. Not the case, as there are numerous instances of players using—nay, needing—the experience of falling short to learn what it takes to cross the finish line. One of the most recent examples is Jordan Spieth, three-time major winner and friend of Fowler. Spieth chalks up his success to the lessons of Sunday falters at the 2014 Masters and Players Championship.
"You have to conquer yourself, your emotions," Spieth told Golf Digest. "You have to win the mental battle with yourself.
“Especially after the Players. I had assumed once I got into position there I could quickly learn from the Augusta experience, and I was wrong. You have to be in that position multiple times to learn the patience it takes, that when the breaks don't go your way, you can still pull it off."
Sometimes you have to get thrown off the bull to know how to stay on. Fowler has dusted himself off plenty of times. Now is his turn to ride.
Shinnecock Hills seems suited for this excursion. Though the fairways are wide, the landing areas tighten once the wind rolls in off the coast, and the gorse means business. Among those with power, Fowler is one of the most accurate off the tee, finding the short stuff nearly 65 percent of the time.
"There are some tough driving holes," Fowler said on Wednesday. "But you still have to pick very tight lines because once these fairways get as firm as they kind of are now and continue to get firmer, the rough is very much a defense as well."
There’s also his ability to fend off the big numbers, ranking third in bogey avoidance. The design team of Coore & Crenshaw enlarged the Shinnecock fairways but stiffened the penalty for missing them. The onus on the second shot plays into Fowler’s hands, ranking 17th in greens in regulation.
Perhaps most importantly, he has an affinity for this course, feeling comfortable at golf’s most uncomfortable test.
“I'm definitely excited for the U.S. Open finally being here,” Fowler said. “This is, when you look at a U.S. Open venue, a place that I have a decent amount of rounds of golf at. I've played enough times to know the golf course, and probably the one that I've had the most experience playing at leading up to a golf tournament.
“We're in a great spot. I feel very good about the game. Rested and ready to go.”
As for that ability to seal the deal? Fowler just accomplished the hardest close a man can make, asking for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage last weekend.
“It worked out perfectly. We kept things very, very casual,” Fowler said of his engagement to Allison Stokke. He did admit he didn’t have the ceremony planned out, asking because he was sick of holding the ring in his pocket. “I didn't want to have to keep toting that thing around for that long.”
The same could be said about the major monkey on his back. He’s four rounds away from not carrying that, either.