Rickie Fowler’s defence of the famed Falcon Trophy will be no cinch with three of last year’s four major champions in the field for the 12th edition of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, not to mention world No.2 Rory McIlroy who is desperate to avenge a major-less 2016.
In an exclusive interview with Golf Digest Middle East, the 28-year-old world No.13 discusses his preparation ahead of the Desert Swing opener from January 19-22 which features Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson, the respective reigning Masters, US Open and Open champions.
The Cobra-Puma star also goes off-piste to share his thoughts on some of the most pressing issues facing golf today including Tiger Woods’ comeback, computer gaming’s impact on junior golf , that elusive major and why he’ll forever favour Orange on Sundays.
Many players swear off golf during the holidays. What constitutes a great vacation for Rickie Fowler?
2016 was such a busy year with the Olympics and the Ryder Cup so I took a few weeks off with my family but I was still be working on my swing with Butch and playing some golf with my buddies when possible so I’m ready to defend my title at the National Course.
How important is this period of recharging?
Travelling can be tiring but it’s all part of being a professional golfer. I love my job and I worked hard for years before turning professional to make this my career and I love travelling to new parts of the world. Last year was only my second time in the Middle East and I enjoyed it so much I came back for a third year running. I’ll take some time out during the holidays to recharge but I’ll be back swinging early January so that I’m ready to defend my title in Abu Dhabi.
How tough is it to defend a title given all the extra fuss around your already heavy PR workloads?
I’m used to doing media at most events so it isn’t too much extra to me. I really enjoy talking to media, especially when it’s at a place where I have good memories because I’ve won there.
A stellar cast has been assembled for the 12th edition of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. It’ll be the first time many will see Dustin Johnson in the flesh. Give us an inside the ropes insight into the character behind those booming drives:
Dustin is one of the coolest guys on Tour and he’s so chilled out when he’s on the course. I love travelling to European Tour events and I’m excited that Dustin is coming over to join me as an American on European Tour soil. The National Course has seen a few big hitters over the last 11 years but I’m sure he’ll be driving his ball to some places that not many players have been to before.
You moved up to No.4 in the OWGR after your win in Abu Dhabi last January and it seemed, following your stellar 2015, it was going to be another barn-storming year, only for your form to fizzle out a little. With the beauty of hindsight, what do you put that down too and how do you rate 2016 overall?
It’s easy in golf to think your next good result is just around the corner, only for your form to fade. 2016 wasn’t the first time in my career where I fizzled out a bit during the season and it won’t be the last so I’ll continue doing everything I can to get better and comeback stronger. I played a lot of golf in 2016 so maybe I was a bit tired but overall I feel like I’m swinging it well and I’m looking forward to 2017. I still see 2016 as a successful year though, I won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, played my third Ryder Cup and represented my country in the Olympics.
You game has flourished under the guidance of Butch Harmon but we presume it is still a work in progress? What do you need to do to regain that 2015 consistency?
I’m always working to get better and I don’t think anyone could say they’ve finished tinkering with their swing, there is always something to work on. I have a ton of positives to take from last year and it’s great to be back in Abu Dhabi at a venue where I have fond memories.
After Abu Dhabi, everyone was saying it was only a matter of time until you won a major, not if you’d win one. How do you feel now some say you’ve entering that bitter-sweet territory as one of the best golfers in the world not to win a major?
There are a lot of good players not to win a major and I know I’ve come close but I still see myself as one of those guys trying to win a golf tournament, just like any other week. I don’t really think about whether I should have won one or not but instead just try and put myself in a position to win and learn from previous years and experiences.
The renowned British photographer David Cannon, recalling your ball striking during the third round at Royal St. George’s in 2011, believes an Open Championship is part of your destiny. Do you feel like the Open is your best shot at a big?
I certainly enjoy the Open Championship and everything that comes with it. I love links golf and the variety of shots you have to play so if I were lucky enough to lift the Claret Jug, I’d be a happy man.
David wants to know if you regard that 68, etched out of miserable conditions en-route to a T5, as one of the best rounds of your career?
I couldn’t even open my umbrella that day at St George’s and shot a score that put me in contention on the final day so at the time, as a young professional without any wins on Tour, it was the best round of my career. I’ve had a couple of other stand out rounds since though, not least my final round of 69 last year at the National Course to win my first Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. That round was up and down all the way and went right down to the wire which was tense. Chipping in on the 17th was particularly memorable because is put me in position to close out the Championship.
What’s your take on the venues for this year’s major championships? Any one in particular you fancy?
It goes without saying that I love teeing it up at Augusta but beyond that, they all look great and I’m excited for the year ahead. I won my first PGA TOUR event at Quail Hollow so with the US PGA Championship heading there for the first time, that’ll be interesting and one where I’ll hopefully be able to channel my good memories.
We all see you on the range preparing for tournaments but can you take us behind the scenes of a typical tournament day, the stuff we don’t see. What rituals do you follow? Are you superstitious?
I don’t really have any superstitions, that’s if you don’t include wearing orange on Sunday of course. My manager is usually with me at events to help me with all of the off-course stuff but I also like travelling with my friends. There’s a few of us on the PGA Tour that have a fun time together and it can be exciting going to each tournament together. In terms of dealing with the off-course demands, I don’t see it being too much of a problem because I have some really cool sponsors like Puma and Red Bull and we do some exciting things. I’m a real adrenaline junkie so if I can combine sponsor demands with fun, that’s perfect.
You do great stuff with all your charity work and always seem to be pushing the youth angle. From your vantage point, is enough being done to foster the junior game?
I think the game is always doing its bit to try to nurture new talent and gets kids playing golf. The USGA certainly run a number of good initiatives, as do the R&A, so hopefully between them and myself and others on the professional golf circuit, we can inspire kids to get in to golf and then keep them there once they start.
We’re seeing online gaming tournaments televised now by the likes of ESPN. From someone who knows about both past-times, how do we get kids off their computers and onto the course?
I don’t know about converting kids that play video games but with the growth of social media and the sort of things we as professionals and bodies such as the European and PGA Tours can showcase on those channels, hopefully that’ll give them an idea of what they are missing out on. You’re never going to get everyone out there in to golf. This is the same for other sports too but if we can showcase golf as a fun and exciting option, that will help us move kids from their computer to the course or driving range.
You played the third round with Tiger in his comeback at the Hero World Challenge. He’s still the biggest draw and so important to the game isn’t he?
Tiger Woods is arguably the best golfer that has ever-lived so whenever I get a chance to tee it up with him, I’m excited. You’ve only got to look at the TV figures during the week to know that Tiger still draws the biggest crowd and golf is in a better place when he plays. It’s good to have him back and it’d be awesome if I got the chance to go toe-to-toe with him some time in the near future on the back nine Sunday.
You and Kiwi professional Danny Lee are renowned for pranking each other in public. It’s certainly lightened the stuffy reputation of the game…is the goofing about a conscious PR effort or just boys being boys? And who is going to have the last laugh?
It’s quite simply boys being boys. anny is a funny guy but I’ve got to say I’ll have the last laugh just in case he reads this.
With time to reflect, what did the Ryder Cup win at Hazeltine National mean for Team USA, especially in light of your tough time at Gleneagles in 2014? It must be nice to bury the “they don’t have our chemistry” talk?
I always love playing for my country and we had a blast at Hazeltine. The team really gelled together and it was one of my major goals last year to make the team and play in front of a home crowd. It was nice to dispel the feeling or talk that we aren’t a team but we weren’t thinking of it like that. We were just doing everything we could to win the Ryder Cup and bring it back to America!
Do you ever wish you’d chosen a different colour than orange for Sunday’s?
I couldn’t possibly choose another colour, I’m orange to the bone! I’m so proud to have been at OSU [Oregon State University] and love that I can honour them every Sunday.
Tell us one thing we don’t know about Rickie Fowler?
My middle name is Yutaka – after my grandfather Taka Tanaka.
What’s one thing you’d like to do that money can’t buy? Family