Fowler stalking the leaderboard early at Quail Hollow
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Rickie still searching for first W on PGA Tour

Rickie Fowler switched his hands on the putter grip — otherwise known as “cross-handed” or “left-hand low” — while he was working on his setup last Tuesday at TPC Louisiana and stuck with it. He said it’s something he’s done in the past, but until last week at the Zurich Classic, he hadn’t used it since he’s been on the PGA Tour. The 23-year-old golfer finished T10, his second top ten of the season, and he’s off to a hot start, firing a six-under 66 at the Wells Fargo Championship, just one shot behind first-round leaders Webb Simpson, Ryan Moore and Stewart Cink.

Great start, but of all the Tour players looking for their first win, Fowler has become the poster child for best-player-without-a-win. I’d like him to get it over with, so we can stop analyzing it and writing about it. It’s been the gazillion-pound gorilla in the room for so long now that it’s become an open discussion, which Fowler has handled gracefully.

In fact, he’s embraced it and defined it as one of his top-three goals going into the year.

“I really had three main goals coming into this year: First win, making it to the Tour Championship and making the Ryder Cup,” said Fowler in his post-round presser at Quail Hollow Club, where he finished T16 in 2010 and 6th in 2011. “Still focusing on those and have some fun.”

Naturally, winning is his top priority. Fowler captured his first professional victory at the One Asia Tour’s Korea Open last October, beating world No. 1 Rory McIlroy by a decisive six shots.

“The main goal is working on my first win, and obviously got to be in contention come Sunday to have that, so it was nice to get back up in there last week,” he said.

He’s fully aware that it’s the well-covered storyline and number-one (and really the only) point of criticism when it comes to all things Rickie Fowler.

“I feel that I’m good enough to win,” he said, smiling. “I definitely feel like with the amount of people expecting or thinking that I can win is compliment.  You know, like I said, with it being my main goal for this year, that’s my main focus.  You know, I’m not too worried about the talk that goes on about when my first win is coming…

I approached Robert Garrigus, who choked away the 2010 St. Jude Classic and bounced back to win at Disney later that year, about the topic. I opened with a comment about Rickie playing really well today and started to broach about the widely-discussed topic. Garrigus, one of the most candid and likeable guys out there, interrupted and said, “His first win and all that BS?”

Yep, no need to mince words.

“Rickie’s got more pressure on him than anybody out here to win a golf tournament –and anybody that’s been in the history of our game,” said Garrigus. “Just because of the way every single kid you see here has a PUMA hat on, every single kid on Sunday is wearing an orange shirt, it’s unbelievable. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid.

“He’s a great golfer. He’s been through some growing pains already. Once he can put that out of his head, I think he’s going to win a lot more than one golf tournament. It’s tough (to win).”

Added reigning PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, who lives in the Jupiter-area, like Fowler and McIlroy, among the many 20-something rising stars: “He’s one of the best players out here for sure, it’s just a matter of time before he wins.”

Asked if he had discussed the art of closing the deal or tried to impart any wisdom on Fowler during a practice round at home, Bradley said he hadn’t. Yeah, can you imagine how awkward that conversation would be? It’d come across so douchey (for lack of a better word, that describe it perfectly).

Fowler is obviously aware he hasn’t won and how often it’s criticized, but the worst thing to do is get defensive, which he’s handled rather well. It’s still an awkward topic to address (but we have to do our job and ask it). Hey Rickie, why haven’t you won? Do you not want to win or something?? Or you can’t handle the nerves? Of course, we are more tactful than that, but I think we’re just as sick of bringing it up as he is about answering those questions.

You know, it’s a process. No doubt Rickie Fowler will notch more than one victory on Tour at the end of his career. He’s learned some lessons going on his third season, and like Garrigus mentioned, experienced growing pains at the ripe age of 23.

“I think one of the things I’ve learned most in the past couple years is you can’t really let up at any point.  I mean, you come off a double and you make a sloppy swing off the next tee and make bogey and go from there.

“You give up a shot here and there, and you find yourself on Sunday five back.  I mean, you hang on, get the most out of a couple rounds early, and now you’re one or two back.  So for me it’s been trying to focus and fully commit to every shot that I hit and make sure that I’m getting the most out of every round that I play, and that way I have no second thoughts or regrets come Sunday or after the tournament.”

Exhibit A: John Huh, who opened with a 77, including a 44 at TPC San Antonio in the first round, before playing his way back into contention and a shot to win the Valero Texas Open a few weeks ago.

Where can Fowler save shots? Well, if you look at it strictly from the stats, he’s ranked 154th in the strokes gained putting this season. Today, he was 55th. He had an excellent ballstriking round, hitting 17 of 18 greens (and the one he missed, he chipped it to a foot).

Maybe Rickie’s switch to the cross-handed grip will help him turn the corner. It’s all mental, but in the end, closing a tournament always comes down to the flatstick.

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)