Oftentimes, the most revealing number in a professional golfer’s ledger isn’t one found among the many Strokes Gained categories, those statistics that speak to fairways, greens and putts, but not to a man’s drive, devotion or distractions. With the enigma that is Rickie Fowler, the most illuminating figure is this: 11 years into his career, he has more commercial sponsors than PGA Tour victories.
And it’s not even close.
There was a period when Fowler’s ample screen time on Sunday afternoons was earned through his fine play. Now that time is paid for by a seemingly endless parade of partners confident that Fowler can help them sell everything from insurance and automobiles to mortgages and underwear. It’s the Arnold Palmer business model, and more power to Fowler for leveraging it so astutely. But at what cost to his career?
On Friday, Fowler missed the cut at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, the latest in a run of dismal performances in the year since he parted ways with his tag team of swing coaches, Butch and Claude Harmon, to work with John Tillery. His last top 10 finish was in January at the American Express.
In every major Strokes Gained performance category this year, he is measurably worse than he was in 2019 (none more glaring than his once-lauded putting, where he ranked 13th on Tour in ’19 but 178th now). He last contended in a major championship at Augusta National almost three years ago.
In the summer of ’19, Fowler was still in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking. He was 49th by the time he headed to Mexico for the final PGA Tour event of the year. If he falls outside the top 50 by December 31, an automatic invitation to the 2021 Masters is lost, meaning he’ll need to improve his ranking or win on the PGA Tour to continue his streak of majors played, which stands at 41.
And it’s tough to sling product when you’re not a factor in the weeks that matter most.
Swing changes are a tough business, even for the best players, and even when they’ve had the entirety of the pandemic lockdown to get comfortable. But Fowler’s struggles may not be unrelated to his popularity with sponsors too. The currency of endorsement deals is time—days that a player must devote to servicing a contract, shooting commercials, participating in corporate events and otherwise donating his pound of flesh. For Cobra/Puma. For Farmers Insurance. For Grant Thornton. For Mercedes. For 2Undr. For TaylorMade. For Corona. For Rocket Mortgage. For Hyperice.
At February’s Honda Classic, an event he won in 2017, Fowler talked about the impact those obligations have on his competitive schedule. “Add in workdays as far as shoots with sponsors, whether they’re still or commercial stuff. I do about 25 to 30 days a year,” he said. “You’ve got to pick and choose, are those Monday and Tuesday when you get back from a tournament or mid-week, or if you’re fitting them into one week off. It kind of interrupts your preparation.”
Translated: a month of Fowler’s year is spent playing the role of a professional golfer in front of cameras, rather than actually doing that job on the course or practice range. That is considerably more time than most elite players will devote to commerce.
“The only way agents can generate income for their clients is to sell time, days per year in exchange for dollars,” said one veteran Tour manager. “Ultimately, this affects performance if the time eats into golf and practice. There needs to be a balance.” One can’t fault Fowler for wanting to secure his family’s financial future, but it isn’t unreasonable to wonder if that balance has been overlooked in Team Rickie.
Managing a PGA Tour player’s commercial partnerships is a tricky business. As rankings and results decline, so too does a player’s value to sponsors. Poor agents will make up the shortfall by inking more deals at a lesser value, paving a road to gilded irrelevance. Thus far, Fowler’s career has been a masterclass in marketing and management. He has become a superstar on a comparatively thin résumé, but a period of reckoning and prioritization looms for both Fowler and his team.
It bears stating that Fowler is a man worth rooting for. He’s likable, courteous with fans, sporting with his peers. He seems to never put a foot wrong. You don’t see him involved in infantile episodes (paging Bryson), sideswiping his rivals (looking at you, Brooks), or otherwise digging a public relations hole for himself (Hi, Justine!). But he is dangerously close to becoming a poster child for the lopsidedness of modern golf, wherein fortunes are bestowed upon those who are, in trophy terms, decidedly impoverished.
Fowler’s first win, a dramatic playoff at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012, was billed as a harbinger of greatness. The same narrative was peddled after the ’15 Players Championship, which he won with an impressive display of gutsy shotmaking. But since that 2015 season, there have been just two wins on the PGA Tour, a meager return for a man with a wealth of talent, who generates a wealth of revenue.
There are a handful of superstars for whom 2021 looms as a crucial time to prove something—McIlroy, Spieth, Koepka—but perhaps for none moreso than Fowler, the only one among them without multiple major titles. Here’s hoping he rediscovers his form, so that next year his presence on Sunday afternoon broadcasts once again means we dare not look away, rather than announcing instead a break in the action for commercials. Because in the final accounting of any player’s career, bank statements don’t count towards the hall of fame.
Published at Golfweek.com, December 6, 2020.