How Rickie Fowler Hit His StrideGOLF RETURNS TO THE OLYMPICS, JUST AS RICKIE FOWLER HITS HIS STRIDE. WHY GOLF’S ONLY ACTION-SPORTS ATHLETE COULD FINALLY WIN A MAJOR THIS YEAR.
The fifth-ranked golfer in the world is also, according to his fans, the best dressed, best looking, most colorful and most fun to watch. One of the smallest PGA Tour stars by height and weight but one of the biggest by social media presence, Rickie Yutaka Fowler has six pro-tour victories, a slew of near misses in the game’s major championships, 1.1 million Twitter followers (including Rory McIlroy and Usain Bolt) and $25 million in career earnings. And he’s just 27 years old.
Fowler grew up riding dirt bikes in Murietta, California. Self-taught as a golfer, he thumped country-club phenoms at Murietta Valley High School and Oklahoma State University, then turned pro in 2009. He reached the world’s top 10 in the sport in 2014. Since then his youth, bright orange Sunday outfits, quick smile and balls-out style have made him a favorite among younger fans who wouldn’t watch golf if not for him.
Sunday-afternoon pressure? “Bring it on,” he says. Bunkers to the left? Water hazard to the right? Another golfer might poke a 2-iron down the middle. Fowler’s more likely to use a driver and take his chances. Risk is part of that equation, as is failure. Last year alone he won three tournaments, but this year has brought new challenges.
THE RED BULLETIN: You make pro golf look like fun.
RICKIE FOWLER: It’s not an act. I’ve got a different background from almost any golfer out there. You don’t see many guys coming from action sports into golf, but coming out of Supercross, the stadium life, I like to push the limits. I like noise. That’s why I love the tournament in Phoenix— that’s a loud golf tournament. Coming down the stretch with this huge rowdy crowd yelling their heads off—to me, that’s a good time.
Golf’s a lot safer than bike racing.
True. When I was 15 I went riding with some guys in the desert. We set up a makeshift track and took off. They came over the back side of a jump and I didn’t see them till we were all in the air. At that point I ditch my bike so it won’t hit them, but I’m still moving pretty good when we crash, and it’s like hitting a wall. Broke my foot in three places and my knee blew up like a balloon.
Is that why you switched to golf?
No, but it sped up the decision.
Compared to that, golf’s a walk in the park.
In golf you get repetition stress. In 2012 and ’13 I got stress fractures in my backbone thanks to my golf swing. I had to tone down the violent change of direction at the top of my swing. There’s little stuff, too. A paper cut on your fingertip can throw you off all day. Pro golfers swing so hard, we get splits in the skin on our hands, like open sores. I’ve used Super Glue on those. You glue your hand up and play.
Is it weird to succeed in a country-club sport?
I grew up hitting balls on a public driving range, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Murietta’s more of a dirt-bike town. Casual. So it’s not like I had to attend any full-on country-club balls. Later on there were functions where I put on a jacket and tie. Fine. It’s not my favorite attire, but you get through it. Maybe I’ll go from there to In-N-Out Burger for a double double with cheese, finish the evening with some Rice Krispies Treats.
Your heritage is as different as your driving-range background.
Yeah, my grandpa’s Japanese. His name’s Yutaka Tanaka—I’ve got it tattooed on my arm. And my grandmother’s Navajo.
I was raised with both cultures, with a sort of common-sense approach that has to do with being positive. Treating people the way you want to be treated. Don’t talk bad about people or wish bad things on them. Try to live happy. That can be tough when you’re playing professional golf, where most guys don’t win even once a year, but I’m working on it. And when people talk about immigration, I feel pretty Navajo. “Yeah, I was here first! Except for us Native Americans, everybody’s an immigrant.”
In early February at Phoenix, you were leading by two shots with two holes to play. Your whole family was there, your dad and grandpa walking down the fairway with you. Then you hit two balls in a pond. What did you learn?
It sucks to lose. But you know what? I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t fail. I hit the ball like I wanted to, but the outcome wasn’t what I wanted. The outcome was in the water. Fine—it wasn’t my turn to win. But I can make it fuel for the next time I’m in contention and shoot for a better result.
Do you think it was nerves?
Any golfer who says he doesn’t get nervous is lying. But I don’t get scared. I did a study for Red Bull a few years ago, me and some amateur players. They hooked us up to monitors, and the amateurs’ pulse went up before they hit a shot. They were nervous. My heart rate stayed constant and then spiked after I hit the ball. That adrenaline rush when the ball’s in the air and you’re waiting to see how it lands, that’s a cool feeling.
How much does focus play into it?
You don’t want to focus for four and a half hours. That’s virtually impossible. You’ve got to shut it off and turn it back on; relax and enjoy the walk between shots, then click back in. You don’t wander mentally, but you don’t want to grind yourself down with constant intense focus. That drains you and it’s not healthy. I’m like a lot of top players: I need weeks off. You can’t play three to four weeks in a row. Physically you can play every day no problem; I’ll play 36 a day if it’s for fun. But competitive rounds? No, your head, your emotions can’t take it. Once you get out on tour you find your limitations. It’s a learning process. You’ll rarely see me play more than three weeks in a row. My weeks off I might still play 36 a day. I’m always working on something but not with the same intensity.
Talk about what’s on tap this year.
It’s a huge year for golf! We’ve got the majors, the Olympics and the Ryder Cup. I’ve been on two Ryder Cup teams, so I’ve played for my country. That’s a different sort of golf. And the Olympics—there hasn’t been golf in the Olympics for 100 years. How cool would it be to win a gold medal and hear the national anthem? I’ve been close in the majors. Winning one, that’s the next step for me. It’s a real, true, attainable goal, and hopefully I won’t stop at one.
You’re one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour despite being one of the smallest at 5’9” and 150.
Yeah, but I’ve got these. [He makes a muscle.] They’re little ones, popguns. I’ve always been long for my size. It’s all about efficiency—timing—making all the parts of your swing work together at impact.
You’ve toned down the outfits. Is that a conscious decision or is it you growing up and getting older?
It’s a little bit of growing up. I don’t want to go too crazy out there. I definitely want my golf game to speak more than whatever it is I might be wearing. I feel like we’ve still got a bit of fun with the clothing, like the tribute to Payne Stewart, wearing the knickers at the U.S. Open last year. I try to keep it fun in a way, but I don’t want people to know what I’m going to be wearing. I don’t want them to expect a certain thing. I want to keep them guessing a bit.
Is there a balance between your brand and yourself as a pro golfer?
I’ve got to be able to separate personal life from professional life and the brand side of things, but I don’t ever want it to be completely different. I want to be genuine in any of the settings. I don’t want to be a different person off the golf course. There has to be that separation between brand and professional, and then the personal life, but it all has to tie together. I definitely want to be just who I am..