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After 'big step' in Las Vegas, Rickie Fowler takes his next step in Japan

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The boyish charm and flat-bill hat remain, but at 32 years old, the laugh lines that frame Rickie Fowler’s smile tell a different story.

He’s still a crowd favorite as evidenced by the ubiquitous flat-bills that dot the galleries that still follow his every move, but this marks Fowler’s 13th season on the PGA Tour. While a fresh appeal remains, the snapshot of the last two years is that of an exhausted and humbled player.

Golf tends to take much more than it gives, but even by those standards the last 24 months have unquestionably aged Fowler. His breakthrough at last week’s CJ Cup was his first top-10 finish in five months and his tie for third place, three shots behind winner Rory McIlroy, was his best finish since the 2019 Honda Classic.

 Where some might see a missed opportunity at The Summit Club, where Fowler started the final round with a two-stroke lead, Fowler sees progress.

“A lot of good stuff,” Fowler said late Sunday. “Obviously disappointed, but this is a big step in the right direction with where we've been the last two years.”

Full-field tee times from the Zozo Championship

He had plenty of time to go even deeper, if he were so inclined, on the long flight to Japan to play this week’s Zozo Championship. He could, if moved to disect the week, consider that his field-leading stroke gained: off the tee was one of his best ball-striking weeks over the span of the largely forgettable slump. He could also focus on his field-leading 63 of 72 greens in regulation or his tie for second in fairways hit (45 of 56).

Perspective comes with age and after the last two years, Fowler will take whatever positives he can find.

“Last week was a very good week for me, especially after the last couple years,” he said Wednesday in Japan. “I played very well tee to green. Unfortunately, I didn't have a very good feel on the greens with speed, so that was where I struggled a little bit, but very happy with the ball-striking.”

It’s no huge surprise Fowler would lean into his improved ball-striking. When legendary swing coach Butch Harmon cashed out his frequent flier miles in 2019, his players had to look elsewhere for week-to-week guidance while on Tour. Fowler turned to John Tillery, whose work with Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown made him an easy choice.

As Fowler began to struggle in late 2020, the external blame-game quickly turned on the new swing coach, but the statistical truth is that his ball-striking (from 55th in strokes gained: off the tee in 2018 to 88th last season) was a problem, but it wasn’t the problem.

The bigger issue, at least objectively, was Fowler’s putting. He was first on Tour in strokes gained: putting in 2017 and 13th in ’19, but plummeted to 126th in that category last season. Even last week at the CJ Cup, it was a similar story. After picking up shots on the greens on Days 2 and 3 in Las Vegas, Fowler slipped (negative 2.69 shots) on Sunday.

“Those [ball-] striking stats were great to see; hit it really, really well. He’s been trending the right way for several weeks now, so it was nice to see it in a tournament and under pressure,” Tillery said in a text message. “Obviously, putter kind of let him from getting it done but I’m not worried about that, it’s never far away.”

But if the statistics suggest Fowler’s optimism is well-founded, there’s probably something to also be said for an influx of confidence. Fowler was one of about a dozen players who used the PGA Tour’s two weeks in Las Vegas to visit with Harmon. In fact, Fowler made two trips out to Rio Secco Golf Club to see his former coach, but these visits felt more social than work-related.

“He came out with his wife, Allison, and we caught up,” Harmon said. “His swing looked good, but it was just good to see them.”

There was probably also a bit of a pep talk mixed in, however subtle. Something along the lines of “you’re Rickie Fowler, play like it.”

It’s taken Fowler two years to reach the basement – he failed to finish inside the top 125 on the FedExCup points list for the first time in his career last season and is qualified for just one of next year’s four majors – and a single solid week in Las Vegas doesn’t change that. But it’s a start.

The last two years have taken a toll, but for the first time in a long time there’s a smile to go along with those laugh lines.