May 20, 2021
Bob HarigESPN Senior Writer
- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — While trying to work his way through a frustrating slump that has seen him drop to 128th in the world rankings, Rickie Fowler has found motivation from an unlikely golf rival: Michael Jordan.
The basketball Hall of Famer and golf nut has his own course in Hobe Sound, Florida, where Fowler puts in a majority of practice time — along with an ever-growing number of matches against Jordan.
Certainly nowhere near Fowler’s level when it comes to golf prowess, Jordan nonetheless serves as a worthy adversary. According to Fowler, the over/under on Jordan’s rounds is 77. And since Fowler must give Jordan 10 shots in their various complicated matches, it forces him to push hard and go low.
“I was 7-under par through 17 holes [recently] and lost,” Fowler said. “And he’s not quiet about it. [But] playing against MJ is as good as it gets for prep.”
Fowler, 32, opened the PGA Championship on Thursday with a 1-under-par 71 at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.
That might not seem so impressive but given where Fowler has been, any under-par score is something to try to build on. When Fowler finished his round early Thursday afternoon, he was in the top 10 and just two shots behind clubhouse leaders Brooks Koepka, Keegan Bradley and Viktor Hovland.
Fowler has not finished better than a tie for 20th in the 11 events he’s played in 2021. He’s seen his world ranking — which was 23rd at the end of 2019 — fall to 53 at the end of 2020, and it is now 128. He’s missed the cut at his past two starts, didn’t play in the Masters for the first time since 2010 and then received a controversial exemption to play in the PGA Championship.
“Yeah, it’s been tough,” said Fowler, a five-time PGA Tour winner who in 2014 finished in the top five in all four major championships but didn’t win any. “Especially knowing that at times, tee to green, it’s been a lot better than what things may show or look. Partly because of things not putting well or just not having the ball go in.
“A lot of it is just you start to see some putts go in, and the hole starts to look a lot bigger, but as soon as you miss a few, it starts to shrink up on you. That’s currently where things have been. It’s nice to at least make some putts today. I hit some good putts, and I kind of attribute that to the work we put in earlier this week.”
Fowler said that as his struggles with his game increased, his putting left him, making it that much more difficult when he began to find some form with his swing.
“I’m starting to feel pretty darn good,” he said. “The last few months, it’s been a lot more just go play golf and not play golf swing. Put a lot of time in prior to the last few months of working on swing and doing the stuff we kind of needed to work on and accomplish. Now it’s just go play golf.
“Unfortunately, through that time, the putter has gone pretty cold, if not the coldest it’s ever been for me, and that’s been a club I’ve been able to rely on through my career from junior golf on up. So I’m very happy with where we’re at. Things can still get better, but we’re back to playing golf and hitting shots and having fun.”
Fowler, who was in one of the featured groups Thursday and remains one of the game’s most popular players, said he felt no extra pressure having received an invite. The PGA of America typically has numerous invitations to give, and often makes sure all who are in the top 100 in the world get a spot in the field.
Fowler received one of 38 exemptions that were extended.
“It’s more motivation,” he said. “Obviously very appreciative to have the opportunity to be here.”
He also gets motivation from Jordan, whose exclusive Grove XXIII course opened in 2019 and has fewer than 100 members.
“I think not having to hand over any money to MJ has been probably some of the bigger wins because of how Grove sets up for him, where he’s able to press [various wagers],” Fowler said. “If I’m able to win the original match and lose — not have him flip the original match because of the press or multiple presses. So if I don’t lose money to him, that’s actually a win.”