The first time Barry McDonnell identified Rickie Fowler as special, as a future big leaguer, the 8-year-old was not even known as Rickie. They called him Rick back then at the Murrieta Valley Golf Range, where it was clear the boy had a gift that would take him places most kids couldn’t fathom while plowing through buckets of scuffed-up balls.
The grandson of a Scottish golf pro, McDonnell didn’t bother fixing the flaws in Fowler’s swing in their sessions under the teacher’s favorite shade tree. McDonnell didn’t want to bog down Fowler with information, or in any way impede the natural talent the boy regularly flashed on this modest training ground wedged between Los Angeles and San Diego. This was about art, not science.
“I’m going to build a great golfing mind for this kid,” McDonnell told his best friend, Bill Teasdall, the owner of the range. “When Rick is 25, they will talk about his golfing mind, and he won’t even know where it came from.” Years later, when Fowler explained his tee-to-green creativity as a function of his love for motorbikes and the midair stunts he once performed on them, McDonnell and Teasdall shot each other a look and shared a private laugh. It was happening. With a visionary’s feel for the game, Fowler had developed into a can’t-miss prospect. Just after he won the tour’s Rookie of the Year award in 2010, McDonnell and Teasdall were talking about his future over lunch. McDonnell had been in poor health, and he confided in his friend that he didn’t believe he would live much longer.
“Don’t you want to stick around and see what happens to Rick?” Teasdall asked him. “This could be a lot of fun for you and me. We can travel around and watch him play.”
“Well,” McDonnell responded, “that’s probably not going to happen.”
The 75-year-old teacher died a few months later, in May, after suffering from complications following a major heart attack. Fowler was devastated. He’d wanted McDonnell to attend his Masters debut in 2011, and McDonnell canceled, according to his daughter Carrie, because he was afraid his health might fail him at Augusta National and distract his prize student.
But in the seven years since his coach’s death, Fowler has honored his memory by fulfilling his prophecy. He has won four times on the PGA Tour and twice on the European Tour, and his second-place finish behind Patrick Reed at this year’s Masters left him with eight top-five finishes in the majors before his 30th birthday. Fowler has fame and fortune, boy-band looks, and a beautiful and devoted fiancée, track and field athlete and fitness model Allison Stokke, to whom he recently proposed from his knee on the beach.
“You gotta decide, are you going to be a Kardashian or are you going to be a golf pro?”
Butch Harmon, Rickie Fowler’s swing coach, to Fowler, in 2016
Fowler has a combined 3 million followers on Twitter and Instagram, and a place among the most well-liked contenders in his sport, or in any sport.
He just doesn’t have the one trophy he always seemed born to win. The one he said in April, after losing to Reed, that he felt was finally his to seize.
“I am ready to go win a major,” Fowler declared.
The U.S. Open starts Thursday, and there isn’t anyone in the field who needs it more than Fowler. It’s his time, his tournament to win or lose. He called Shinnecock one of his favorite courses after answering a lot of questions about his big-game fortitude, or lack thereof, on Masters Sunday, when he played the last 11 holes in 6-under and birdied the 18th to force Reed to make par to avoid a playoff. More than anything, Fowler answered the lingering question posed by his current coach, Butch Harmon, at the end of the 2016 season: “You gotta decide, are you going to be a Kardashian or are you going to be a golf pro?”
That was no Kardashian who followed a 65 on Saturday at Augusta with a closing 67 savored by a crowd that was trying like hell to will him home. When Reed heard the roar following Fowler’s birdie on the 72nd hole, he said, “I knew it had to be Rickie.” He knew it had to be a sound generated by the world’s most popular player to have never won a major.
Fowler met the victorious Reed with a hug when it was over, reliving a Groundhog Day encounter that has drawn criticism from the Old School set. Young American star (Reed, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka) wins major. Young American star is greeted warmly by his contemporary, Fowler, who says all sorts of pleasant things about the winner and seems a little too content in his role as every champion’s best friend. You remember what Leo Durocher said, right?
Nice guys finish T-5.
“I think it will happen to Rickie,” Jack Nicklaus said of winning one of the sport’s four big ones. Nicklaus, of course, won a record 18 majors, so it’s a lot easier for him to say than it is for Fowler to do.
“To say it, that he’s too nice to win? No,” Nicklaus said. “Rickie’s a tough competitor, and you can watch him coming down the stretch, and he can get it up-and-down from anywhere under pressure. … He’s done that to win other tournaments, and he’ll do that eventually during a week that’s a major. He’ll do that.”
Most past and present champions say the same about Fowler, that he’s too gifted to be denied forever, that it’s just a matter of time before he breaks through the way Phil Mickelson did (at 33) and Sergio Garcia did (at 37). They talk about his playoff victory at the 2015 Players Championship, when he answered an anonymous players’ poll in Sports Illustrated that named Fowler and Ian Poulter as the sport’s most overrated players by staging a dramatic Sunday comeback and by pummeling the 17th hole with three birdies inside an hour.
A month ago at this year’s Players Championship, Spieth said that triumph proved Fowler’s quest is a matter of when, not if. “If you’ve won here,” Spieth said, “there’s no other hurdle other than just getting over the constant question and that kind of burden.
“But as far as the individual, your mentality on the golf course and ability to close, if you’ve done it here you can do it anywhere, and he knows that. I have no doubt that we’ll be chuckling at these conversations in the near future. And yes, I am obviously rooting for him if I’m not there myself.”
THAT ALMOST EVERYONE IS ROOTING for Fowler is a testament not only to his social-media appeal, neon outfits and oversize baseball caps, but to the parents and grandparents who raised him to be humble and respectful of those who came before him. Those traits were on public display at Pinehurst in 2014, when Fowler wore plus-fours and knee-high argyle socks as a tribute to Payne Stewart, who won the 1999 U.S. Open there just four months before Stewart died in a plane crash.
They were also on display in the company of his friend, Arnold Palmer, who was thrilled the day Fowler ran him down at Seminole to show him the haircut Arnie had long urged him to get. Palmer’s 2016 death inspired Fowler to skip last year’s World Golf Championship match-play event in Austin in favor of playing the week before at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, an event some marquee names skipped to the dismay — and even anger — of longtime Palmer associates and friends. Fowler turned his high-top shoes into mobile shrines to the King, and then explained to one of those angered Palmer friends why he didn’t replace Bay Hill with Austin on his packed schedule.
“There are always going to be other WGCs,” Fowler said. “There’s only going to be one of these.”
But that respect and humility were already evident when Rickie was known as Rick to the proprietors of the Murrieta Valley Golf Range. Bill Teasdall recalled a teenage Fowler playing across the country in an American Junior Golf Association event at Palmer’s Bay Hill, and then returning without saying a word about it. “About a week later, I asked Rick how he did,” Teasdall said. “He said, ‘I won.’ That’s all he said. Most kids would’ve had their parents coming out and telling us, ‘Did you hear what our boy did?’ His parents never talked about his golf at all.”
Lynn and Rod Fowler made sure Rickie understood that everything wasn’t about Rickie, even if he was a boy wonder with a grownup’s driver in his hands. Fowler’s grandfather, Yutaka Tanaka, started taking him to the range before he turned 4. Carrie McDonnell Wood, Barry’s daughter, recalled seeing young Fowler arrive for his practice sessions in the early years.
“He was so cute,” she said. “That bag came out of the car, hit the ground, and it was on his shoulder, and he was walking right out there looking so focused.”
Soon enough Fowler was spending all his after-school hours hitting balls until dark, at least until Barry McDonnell told Fowler that he needed to play more and practice less, that he needed to learn how to score.
Before Fowler figured out how to score effectively enough to become the No. 1 amateur player in the world, he’d autograph golf balls and send them to McDonnell as Christmas presents. “He signed them to my dad like, ‘This is what I’m going to do as a pro,'” Carrie said. Barry was a believer from the start. “He told me, ‘This kid is going to win PGA Tour tournaments,'” Carrie said. “He knew that for sure. I don’t think my father said that about anyone else.”
Fowler’s presence at McDonnell’s memorial service in 2011 meant a ton to the coach’s family and friends, and came as no surprise to any of them. Teasdall thinks Fowler still misses McDonnell a ton. After his American team won the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, Fowler showed up unannounced at the Murrieta Valley range, stuck the actual Ryder Cup into Teasdall’s breadbasket, and told him he wished McDonnell was around to hold it too. Fowler suggested the two men should grab a cup of Barry’s favorite beer, Miller Genuine Draft, and head down to Barry’s old pepper tree to hit some balls.
McDonnell would be happy with the career choices Fowler has made as a pro. On the day he predicted he wouldn’t be alive much longer, McDonnell told Teasdall that Rick “should probably go to Butch Harmon because Butch won’t change him, won’t reinvent him.” McDonnell told his daughter the same thing, and neither Carrie nor Teasdall shared that opinion with Fowler. They thought a professional athlete should make that kind of decision on his own. When Fowler did hire Harmon near the end of 2013, he was relieved to hear from Teasdall that Butch had been Barry’s long-term preference all along.
Under Harmon, Fowler has won six tournaments here and abroad, including Tiger Woods‘ Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. He has found a more consistent swing that has alleviated some lower back issues, and his body is a bit leaner and meaner than it was in his shaggy-haired days. Fowler has validated Woods’ old scouting report that Rickie had “an inordinate amount of talent.” He has proved he can shoot 32 while chasing on the Sunday back nine at Augusta National, where he said in April that he felt, for the first time, that he figured out how to win a major.
“I would say previously, I was still feeling the nerves and dealing with tough rounds and things not going your way,” Fowler said then.
Three weeks ago, at the Fort Worth Invitational, Fowler said that his final Masters round was “definitely the most confidence I’ve felt in a major.”
So now all he has to do is go out and actually win one.
“I’ve heard people say that Rick is too nice, and I don’t think that’s the case at all,” Teasdall said. “But they’ll probably keep saying it until he wins a major.”
Fowler has the skill and the newfound confidence to do it, along with the beautiful golfing mind Barry McDonnell started building for him in his boyhood days on the range. He has found a bride in his best friend, Stokke, another reason to believe Fowler, golf’s high-profile bridesmaid, is in a very good place at the U.S. Open.
It’s his time, finally, to win at Shinnecock. His time to prove that nice guys do indeed finish first.
ESPN’s Bob Harig contributed to this story.