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Swanson: Rickie Fowler builds confidence at Farmers Insurance Open

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LA JOLLA — “Rickie, you’re a legend!”

“Nice poke, Rickie!”

“Rickie, let’s gooo!”

“Rick-IEEE!”

That electric reception on every hole along Torrey Pines’ South Course on Friday wouldn’t typically go to the world’s 111th-ranked player – even if he was steadily climbing the leaderboard, shooting up 45 places with a 5-under-par 67 that put him in a tie for ninth, seven strokes behind leader Sam Ryder, going into the fourth and final round Saturday at the Farmers Insurance Open.

It’s not what a guy who hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2019 would expect to hear, not when he hasn’t notched a finish better than 53rd in La Jolla since 2013, missing six cuts in that span.

But the world’s 111th-ranked player at the moment is Rickie Fowler, the still-recognizable Murrieta native once heralded as golf’s next big thing.

He was a wunderkind with a baby face and shaggy hair. A mild-mannered fellow who captured golf’s imagination with his natural, understated charisma – and the game bold enough to match his bright on-course ensembles, including those all-orange final-round fits.

I covered that kid for eight years as a golf writer for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, out where just about everyone had a Rickie story, like the one about him earning admittance to play junior golf before he turned 5, telling the adults in charge: “I promise I’ll be good!” (No kidding.)

Everyone also had expectations for what he was bound to accomplish.

And, for a while, Fowler was proving them right. The former Murrieta Valley High Schooler was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year in 2009 and won five Tour titles. He climbed as high as No. 4 in the World Golf Rankings in 2016 and has career winnings of more than $42 million.

But for the past few years, the game that Fowler has loved wholeheartedly since he was a child hasn’t been loving him back.

Since the beginning of 2020, he has only two top-five finishes on the PGA Tour, both in limited fields. In 22 events last season, he missed nine cuts and finished among the top 25 only three times. He hasn’t finished in the top 90 of the FedEx Cup standings since 2019, falling outside the all-important top 125 the past couple of years, holding onto his card thanks to his collection of exemptions …

You get the point.

He couldn’t keep spiraling and doing the same things, so he’s made changes. Significant changes.

He split with caddie Joe Skovron, a childhood friend from Murrieta who had been his caddie for the entirety of Fowler’s 13 years on tour.

Fowler also ended a three-plus-year relationship with swing instructor John Tillery, re-teaming with Butch Harmon, the famed golf instructor who just told Golfweek: “I think he’ll win this year.”

And Fowler has revamped his swing, losing the loops and making it a point to be more on plane throughout.

The biggest change, of course, is a small package: His first child, daughter Maya, who was born in November and who’s had a major impact by brightening her daddy’s days: “It doesn’t matter what happens out here, win, lose, whatever,” Fowler said this week. “You feel the same when you go home. See a little smile from her, it doesn’t matter what happened previous to that.”

There’s a lot that’s new in the 34-year-old’s life, but he looked a lot like the Fowler of old on Friday.

Sure, he wears his hair shorter, and his arms are bigger. But he’s still tan, and still cool.

And with a steadily swelling gallery behind him, Fowler showed recognizable flashes as he toured Torrey Pines’ tough layout, playing clean, aggressive golf. After bogeying his third hole (No. 12), he birdied six of his next 12 holes, consistently giving himself chances to inch further up the scoreboard.

“Gettin’ there,” he said after signing his scorecard and before being reunited with Maya. “It was nice to get some momentum going today, that’s something I’ve struggled with the past few years, building confidence, momentum. So it’s nice to see some work pay off.

“I know I can play well here, unfortunately haven’t been able to get to the weekend in many many years, but yeah, this is nice.”

It was, wasn’t it?

But even when it isn’t being nice, Fowler insists he won’t be giving up on the game that he still loves very much.

“It’s pretty much still the same, I love it,” he said. “I just love to go play with friends, if I wasn’t playing professionally, I’d still be playing as much as I could at home.

“There’s definitely been some love-hate at times, it’s tough when it is your job and you deal with the ups and downs. And the last few years have been a little tough, but that’s one of the reasons we love it. It’s always a challenge, you can never perfect it, it’s always work and you’re always trying to get better.”

The next challenge comes Saturday, when Fowler tees off at 10:47 a.m., sure to draw a gallery geared up to see him get his groove back.

Out here watching Rickie Fowler make birdies — five in eight holes to get to 3 under — like I’m a 27-year-old golf writer again. Murrieta’s homeboy is 4 under (T17) with six to play today here at the Farmers Insurance Open. pic.twitter.com/fFvPfo6ZuZ

— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) January 27, 2023

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