Mired in the worst slump of his golf career, Rickie Fowler arrived at Dove Mountain on Wednesday morning disguised as someone else.
His hair, a mop of brown that once extended to his shoulders, was cut short. The lime green and orange getups that move merchandise but bring unwanted attention were replaced with soft gray gear. Gone was the swagger, replaced with the cold stare of a golfer who knew he didn’t stand much of a chance.
Fowler was, after all, a No. 14 seed taking on arguably the toughest No. 2 in the history of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship: Ian Poulter.
“If I was picking a bracket and I was an outsider looking in, I would probably would have picked Poulter,” Fowler said. “I knew I was the underdog. I knew I had somewhat nothing to lose.”
And everything to gain. Fowler dispatched Poulter 2 and 1 in Wednesday’s first round, and it wasn’t even that close. Fowler never trailed: He took a 3-up lead on Poulter through seven holes and held on, even as the Brit tried to rally on the back nine. The two golfers halved the penultimate hole, giving Fowler the match.
Poulter, the 2010 Match Play champion, skulked to an awaiting Cadillac Escalade and was whisked to the clubhouse.
Fowler stayed behind to analyze one of the biggest upsets in recent years. Fowler had lost his last three matches dating to 2011; he’ll face Jimmy Walker in today’s second round.
“Against Poulter, it’s tough no matter what,” he said. You can be 4-up with four (holes) to play, and he’s going to find a way to put some sort of charge on. It’s really just keeping the foot on the gas and trying to stay in every hole.”
If anyone deserved an easy match Wednesday, it was Fowler.
The Murrieta, Calif., native and Oklahoma State product has missed cuts in his three previous stroke-play tournaments. His short game is in tatters — “hopefully, I can get the putter warmed up,” he said — and his swing is completely rebuilt. Fowler has hired coach Butch Harmon, famous for his work with Tiger Woods, to help alleviate his chronic back pain and fix his form.
Fowler “felt like a hack on the range,” he said, when he started implementing Harmon’s plan — better hand placement on his backswing and an economical, less-jerky motion on his swing.
Slowly, Fowler said, he can feel his game coming back.
He drove the ball well Wednesday and stayed away from overaggressive mistakes that can spell disaster . He posted four birdies; his lone eagle, on the par-5, 583-yard 13th hole, all but iced his win.
Fowler called the win “big, like winning a golf tournament.”
“It’s tough when you don’t get any immediate results,” he said. “If you know (that), hey, you’re going to be in a great spot in one year from now, but you’ve got to suffer through missing some cuts and not playing very well, it’s going to be a tough year. If you knew you were going to come out on top, you would go through that.”
He has endured the worst. Today, the golfer masquerading as Rickie Fowler will try to turn one upset into two. Walker is the PGA Tour’s hottest golfer, winner of three of his last nine tournaments. The two are good friends, making today’s showdown that much more interesting.
“He’s a good dude,” Walker said of Fowler. “I hate to say … match play is kind of personal.”