Rickie Fowler used Michael Jordan trash-talk matches to help revive career

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — It doesn’t seem like that long ago when life was pretty much perfect for Rickie Fowler.

He had it all. He was in all the biggest tournaments, was a regular at every one of the majors, was a perennial member of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams and was one of the most popular and recognizable players in golf.

Fowler not only ran with the cool crowd, he was the leader of the cool crowd.

The only thing that eluded him — and still does — was a major championship victory. But, given how competitive he’d been in those and how close he’s come to winning one (11 top-10 finishes, including eight top-5s and three runners-up), conventional wisdom suggested that one or more of those would soon come, too.

Then conventional wisdom and all assumptions about where Fowler’s career was headed went straight to hell in a pull cart.

Fowler, 32, has spent the better part of the past year and a half wandering in the wilderness of the worst slump of his career.

His world ranking, which was as high as No. 4 in 2016 and was No. 23 at the end of 2019, has plummeted to 128th. As a result, Fowler has no longer become an automatic entrant into the major championships, missing out on the Masters last month because he fell outside of the top 50.

At this point, Fowler is a long shot (at best) to be a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup side in September, likely ending a stretch in which he’s played in the past three.

When Fowler failed to qualify for the Masters in April, it ended a streak in which he’d played every major championship dating back to the 2010 British Open.

The reason Fowler’s playing in the PGA Championship this week at Kiawah Island is not because he qualified on merit, but because the PGA of America extended him a special exemption based on his popularity and past performances.

And, in what can be best described as a baby step, Fowler shot an encouraging 1-under 71 in Thursday’s opening round on the Ocean Course and is four shots out of the lead held by Corey Conners entering Friday’s second round.

“It’s been tough,’’ Fowler conceded about his prolonged slump. “Where stuff started setting in was once I moved outside the top 50 in the world [and] wasn’t going to be in Augusta. It’s time to jump back on the horse. First get back inside the top 50 and keep on moving. We’re on our way back now, though.’’

Part of Fowler’s way back included some healthy trash-talk matches against Michael Jordan at the Florida course Jordan owns, The Grove, where Fowler spends a lot of his time practicing.

Fowler said he gives Jordan 10 shots in their money matches and, with Jordan’s “over-under’’ about 77. It forces Fowler to have to go low to beat the NBA great and not have to dig into his own pocket.

“I was 7-under through 17 holes and lost,’’ Fowler said of a recent match he had with Jordan. “And he’s not quiet about it.’’

Fowler added that “playing with MJ is as good as it gets for prep’’ for tournament weeks like this.

So, here he is, trying to resurrect his game and put his career back on the tracks at one of the most difficult major championship courses there is.

“Obviously, [I’m] very appreciative to have the opportunity to be here,’’ Fowler said. “I think it’s a little more motivation to go take advantage of it.’’

So far, so good.

Fowler, despite being so good with the fans and kids and being charitable, has his share of critics, many of whom are put off by how commercially exposed he is. His critics view him as someone who’s more committed to his marketing campaigns than working on his game.

Fowler’s last win came at the Waste Management in 2019. You have to go back 30 tournaments to find his last top-10 finish, in January 2020. He has five missed cuts in 2021, including the last two tournaments he played before this week — the Wells Fargo and AT&T Byron Nelson.

“In a way, [the struggle] is just putting things into perspective and understanding that I get to do this for a living and that’s awesome,’’ Fowler said. “I’ve had a great run so far out here. I definitely want more.’’

Golf is better when Fowler’s playing well. Whether that one round on Thursday at the Ocean Course is a proper indicator that he’s on his way back remains to be seen. He and his legion of fans can only hope.

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