‘I measure success in different ways – it’s not just about winning’
You might remember the Open Championship of 2013, when Phil Mickelson finished with a stunning flourish at Muirfield to win the Claret Jug. You probably won’t recall Rickie Fowler’s performance that week. His game spun off in the opposite direction.
Fowler, 24 at the time, shot 78-76 at Muirfield – 12 over par – to miss the cut by four. His form was erratic and a weekend off in East Lothian delivered him to crisis point.
He was without a coach and needed some help, so he called Butch Harmon.
“Rickie and I had never worked together but I knew him well,” starts Harmon, sitting alongside Fowler.
“I had watched him ever since he was a young player and I knew his swing.
“Rickie really played poorly at Muirfield, about as poorly as I have ever seen him play. He called me up and said, ‘Look, is there any way you could spend an hour or so watching me hit some balls after your guys have teed off tomorrow?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, and I have a little bit of an idea about what I would like you to do.’
“So I went over on the Saturday and said, ‘OK, let’s hit some.’
“I watched Rickie hit a few balls and I explained what I saw and what I thought he did.”
According to Harmon’s diagnosis, Fowler was allowing his hands to get too close to his body on the takeaway.
His backswing was subsequently too flat and from there – even for one of the game’s most naturally gifted ball strikers – it was impossible for him to strike the ball with any real consistency.
He was susceptible to a hook and was suffering from backache, and Harmon wanted Fowler to get the feel for a different position as he drew the club back.
“I said, ‘Look, this is how we are going to clear this up,’” continues Harmon. “‘I have got to get you out of this position. Once you do that all the other stuff will fall into place. I want you to take the club back to here, stop, and then go ahead and hit the ball.’”
It was a basic, two-piece swing drill. Nothing fancy, but with Harmon you are not paying for complex solutions, you are buying into his ability to know the best remedy for your particular swing.
“Well, for the first five or six balls, Rickie couldn’t even make contact,” adds Harmon. “He was not really liking my idea.”
While Fowler, now 28, dresses to be noticed on the golf course and is a big noise on Twitter with more than 1.5 million followers, when he is standing next to Harmon, one of the game’s great, natural raconteurs, the World No. 7 is happy to fulfil his role as student and listen, for the most part.
But saying Fowler “couldn’t even make contact” with a golf ball? That’s taking it too far.
“Well, I was still hitting the golf ball,” Fowler interrupts with a smile. He has heard this story before.
“But this is our idea of not making contact. I was catching a lot of turf or blading the ball. They were not proper golf shots. I said, ‘You’re trying to make me look stupid.’”
Harmon jumps in. “I replied, ‘I think you have already done that with how you’ve played this week! We’ve got to go to work.’ I got this look from Rickie, but ever since then we have not only had a good coach-player relationship but we have become good friends.
“When we work, we work hard but we have fun doing it. It’s not just me giving Rickie a hard time.”
That first session was July 2013 and the hard grind of grooving a new swing plane was made in earnest over the following winter.
“The only change I really made to Rickie’s swing was to his takeaway,” says Harmon. “Rickie has now hit thousands of balls with the two-piece swing drill.”
The following season, in 2014, it did not take long for Fowler’s form to straighten out too, and that year the Californian confirmed his status as a serious contender in the majors.
Fowler became the first golfer since Tiger Woods to finish in the top five of each of them: tied for 5th at the Masters; joint runner-up at the US Open at Pinehurst when Martin Kaymer was unstoppable; pushing Rory McIlroy to the line at the Open at Hoylake, finishing tied for 2nd place; and then temporarily holding the final-round lead in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, but not nailing the putts to keep up with McIlroy – in the form of his life – again.
Fowler finished two shots behind and the misses got more painful as they came.
“The PGA is the one that hurt most in 2014,” he reflects. “In the first three it was a lot of fun to be in great positions and have great finishes, but at Valhalla I really felt I could win it. It stung.
“Still, to look back on that year, it was pretty awesome and something I can be proud of.”
Fowler recovered his winning touch in 2015, at the Scottish Open and in the Deutsche Bank Championship in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, but most impressive was his finish at TPC Sawgrass to win the Players Championship.
Fowler’s last four holes in regulation at Sawgrass really were from a golfer’s wildest dreams.
He finished 3-3-2-3 – birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie – to complete a final round of 67, the low score of the day.
No tournament golfer had ever played those final four holes in just 11 shots, and since hole-by-hole tracking began on the PGA Tour in 1983, no tournament winner anywhere had ever finished the final four holes in 5 under par.
In a play-off with Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner, Fowler had to revisit the 137-yard 17th hole with its green all but surrounded by water – the signature hole at Sawgrass – twice more.
In three visits to the hole on the Sunday he birdied it three times, and five times out of six for the tournament. The last of them clinched the title. “Big thanks to 17,” said Fowler afterwards.
Further significant titles have duly followed at the 2016 Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and 2017 Honda Classic, and the consistency that was so elusive back in 2013 is now very much keyed in under Harmon’s watchful eye.
In the last PGA Tour season, Fowler notched up a total of 10 top-10 results from 21 starts, including tied-5th finishes in the US Open and PGA Championship.
Apart from the Honda win, he came runner-up at both the Memorial and the BMW Championship, the penultimate event in the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Fowler is a Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup winner.
The real gap in the cabinet, as we all know, is for a major trophy.
“I have been playing at the highest level,” he reflects.
“You have to measure success in different ways, not just by winning, just because that doesn’t happen a whole lot.
“I have been playing well and done a lot of good things in executing my game plans.
“My game has been very consistent.
“We’ve been doing a lot of good work away from tournaments and making sure I come in ready to play. I am doing the right work leading up to events.”
The backswing honed by Harmon is second nature to Fowler now.
Today he is faced with a mental challenge more than physical; to stay patient and to persevere to keep getting into contention on the Sunday afternoons of the majors. You never know when fortunes will swing your way, and in world golf Fowler is vying at the front of the queue for first-time major success.
“I have been a golf coach for 52 years and I have been fortunate to coach the best players in the world,” adds Harmon.
“I have taken three players to No. 1 in the world and I am going to get Rickie there. He is going to be number four.
“But more than that, I have never met a nicer young man than this kid. He comes from a great family, he has a great heart and Rickie is a wonderful person.”
Time will tell if Fowler can reach World No. 1, but Harmon has a knack with this sort of thing.