Rickie Fowler won’t get a fairytale ending at the 2023 US Open, but finds something more important

LOS ANGELES — It was a Hollywood ending, just not the one he envisioned — more “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” than “Great Expectations.”

Rickie Fowler has been a star ever since he landed on the biggest stage with a SoCal style that sold everything from flat-brimmed hats to mortgages. There was a time when that “Rickie” would have felt right at home at the $8 billion property off Wilshire Boulevard, so much so that his swing coach Butch Harmon once famously told him, “You have to decide if you’re going to be a Kardashian or are you going to be a golf pro.”

Style eventually gave way to substance. He won his first title in 2012, claimed his biggest prize at the ’15 Players Championship and famously completed the Top-5 Slam in 2014, finishing T-5 at the Masters, T-2 at the US Open, T-2 at The Open and T-3 at the PGA Championship.

In another time, Fowler would have been an easy favorite at the Glitz and Glamor Open, but those days had faded as his bright orange Sunday appeal and his game. Failing to qualify for last year’s US Open, he was ranked 152nd in the world and was searching for answers.

When Fowler called Harmon last November, he had reached rock bottom. “I’m a little lost,” he told the legendary swing coach. Harmon was happy to resume what had been a productive relationship. Why wouldn’t he?

Full field scores from the US Open

“I mean, he’s so cute. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like Rickie?” Harmon asked.

For anyone watching Sunday’s final round at the Los Angeles Country Club, the answer to Harmon’s rhetorical question could easily be fate. The boy from Murrieta, Calif., set a US Open scoring record with an opening 62, held the lead with a 68 on Day 2 and began the final round tied at 10 under with Wyndham Clark atop the leaderboard.

For those inclined to demand an answer in the simplest of terms, golf happened to Fowler on Sunday.

“I just didn’t feel like it today,” he shrugged. “The iron game was way below average and didn’t add up. That’s a big thing in the majors, especially on a Sunday. Making putts and kind of keeping it pretty stress-free.”

Although effortlessly succinct, Fowler’s efficiency misses so much from last round, but his lack of introspection is understandable.

Clark’s mental strength pays off in the US Open victory

He posted his third bogey of the day on No. 7 to fall five shots off the pace, and a 3-over closing nine dropped him to fifth. This was not the storybook that so many envisioned for Fowler, whose recovery from a career-threatening crisis has been the understated highlight of 2023.

Even as the title slipped away from him, Fowler remained hopeful, explaining that it wasn’t until Clark two-putted for birdie on the par-5 14th hole that reality set in.

“I thought if I could make that putt on the next one, which I almost did, I thought it might give me a shot to get a two-shot swing and maybe make a run in the last three,” drew Fowler on the shoulders. “I knew I was on the outside looking in, but at the same time, you never know what’s going to happen.”

If the past few years have taught Fowler anything, it’s the value of the unintended and unexpected.

The cold numerical indifference will note that Fowler is now 2-for-10 to close the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour and 0-for-48 in a major career that began just down the coast at the historic 2008 US Open . But, as is usually the case, it misses so much of Fowler’s story. There have been countless near misses, heartaches and close calls in his career, but his end at LACC won’t be the one that haunts him.

After more than two years adrift in a competitive abyss, a poor ball-striking Sunday and a cold putt are the latest to send him spiraling.

“Having been in this position for the last couple of years, like I talked about how good I felt this week, it’s amazing,” Fowler said. “As much as it’s unfortunate not to be in the position I wanted to be after today, we just keep building and keep moving forward. Not the finish I wanted, but there are a lot of good things to take away from this week.”

Sports like to cling to the finality of wins and losses, and some would consider Fowler’s perspective a loser’s complaint. But when you’ve been pulled from the game you love for so long, perspective is the only option.

That’s not to say Fowler didn’t struggle with his share of emotions after letting a precious chance to win a coveted major slip away. His voice cracked when asked what he told Clark on the 72nd hole, and he swallowed hard when he saw his daughter waiting for him after a brutal day on the crisp North Course.

“Obviously very sad, but to be able to see my daughter before I score, it takes a part of it away because in that kind of big scheme, yes, we want to win tournaments and be the one holding the trophy, but she couldn’t care less if I shoot 65 or 85,” he said. “It just makes you realize and understand that golf is special and it’s what I love to do, but it’s definitely not everything.”

Los Angeles’ North Course would never be the end of Rickie’s story. His career, both ups and downs, has been far too eventful for such a neat conclusion.

For three days, it felt like the stars had finally aligned for the game’s most abandoned star. But as he gathered his daughter, Maya, and was joined by his wife, Allison, it was clear that in this defeat, Fowler found something much more important than a trophy.

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