SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Rickie Fowler is short on majors, not on class.
He returned to the 18th green at Baltusrol after an exhausting day because he wanted to congratulate the winner. He is friendly with Jimmy Walker and Jason Day, though there is a special connection with Walker. Both work with Butch Harmon. They were partners in all four matches in the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, and two matches in the Presidents Cup at South Korea. They were housemates at Royal Troon.
“He’s definitely one of my closest buddies on tour,” Fowler said.
Sunday afternoon, however, was as close as Fowler came to a major championship trophy this year.
He was trending in a big way two years ago when he finished in the top five at all four majors, a feat previously achieved only by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods until Jordan Spieth joined them last year. Even so, it appeared to be only a matter of time before Fowler broke through.
That now seems like a long time ago.
On a soft course at Baltusrol, in a major that produced five players who had all four rounds in the 60s, Fowler could only manage 70-71 in the last two rounds Sunday and tied for 33rd. That was his best finish of the year in the majors.
The British Open two weeks earlier was the first cut in a major he made this year. He shot 76-73 on the weekend at Royal Troon. He never shot better than 75 at Oakmont. He opened with an 80 at Augusta National.
Golf is hard, and so are the majors.
One year, Fowler had top 5s in all the majors without winning a tournament. The next year, he won a career-best three times and didn’t feature in any of the majors.
There is no cause for alarm. He still is No. 7 in the world, and that’s not a case of bad math. Fowler won in January at Abu Dhabi against the strongest field of the year on the European Tour. He lost the Phoenix Open in a playoff after leading by two shots with two to play. He had the 54-hole lead at Quail Hollow in early May and closed with a 74.
Since then, his only top 10 was at Firestone, a World Golf Championship with a small field and no cut.
“It’s been a little slow the last couple of months,” Fowler said Monday at the TPC Boston to promote his title defense next month in the Deutsche Bank Championship. “Just golf’s hard. If it was easy, then everyone would be out here playing and I wouldn’t have a job. So it’s just kind of fighting through it and continuing to put in the work, and it will turn back around here soon.”
The victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship last year, coupled with the victory in Abu Dhabi this year, put Fowler on the cusp of conversations involving the top players. He made people suggest a “Big Four” when there really were only three players battling for No. 1. And when Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open to move into the elite in today’s game, Fowler lingered as No. 5.
That’s no longer the case. Golf is done with “Big” any numbers, and Fowler wouldn’t be part of that conversation at the moment.
Where the sluggish season has hurt him is in the Ryder Cup standings.
Fowler has dropped all the way to No. 12, a precarious place to be for a couple of reasons. Only the top eight automatically qualify for the U.S. team, and Fowler is running out of time to make it. He chose to play in the Olympics, and he’s leaving this week to be there for opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
That means he won’t be at the Travelers Championship, where the other three Olympians are playing — Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar. All of them are just outside the top eight, and just ahead of Fowler, in the Ryder Cup standings.
It’s another reminder how little golf guarantees. Fowler never imagined this being an issue six months ago.
“I took a little bit more time off through the first part of the season to prepare for the busy summer that was ahead,” Fowler said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t played as well as I would have liked to the past few months, which has kind of put me in a tough position.”
He was in reasonable shape at the halfway point in the last two majors, only to fade on the weekend. And as thrilled as he was for Walker winning a major, Fowler surely took notice that the 37-year-old Texan had been struggling over the previous 15 months.
It can be frustrating that it wasn’t him, or it can provide hope that his turn his coming.
Either way, he’s running out of time.
The cutoff for Ryder Cup qualifying is after The Barclays at the end of the month. Davis Love III will get four captain’s picks, though Fowler doesn’t have form on his side, particularly if someone else emerges during the FedEx Cup playoffs. No guarantees in golf.
The next trophy in his sight is a gold medal from the Olympics, which he grew up watching. Fowler said he was never going to run fast enough or jump high enough to be an Olympian, so this was a pleasant surprise to have golf return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904.
There are no Ryder Cup points in Rio, though a gold medal would surely go a long way toward another competition at Hazeltine that is all about flag. No one wants to miss that one.