Watching PGA Tour Live’s Featured Group coverage on Thursday and Friday afternoons is one of life’s simple pleasures. While it may lack that drama of the back nine on Sunday, and the rollercoaster of emotion that can accompany, the early rounds are very much the player against the course, and there is something pure about that.
And the fact that the game’s marquee players populate the featured groups is an added bonus. When Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson or Jon Rahm play, it’s safe to assume they’ll be in the spotlighted crew, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau the same, and it goes without saying that Tiger gets the nod, but there are PGA Tour Live regulars whose inclusion makes a little less sense.
Since golf resumed in the wake of the pandemic, Rickie Fowler’s inclusion at Bay Hill means he has now been featured 12 times in 17 starts, despite falling from 29th to 65th in the world rankings over the same period. I like Rickie as much as the next guy – unless the next guy is my friend Fergal whose loyalty to Fowler only benefits Paddy Power’s bottom line – but surely it’s time for a changeup.
By all accounts, Rickie is one of the best-liked guys on tour, and remains one of the game’s most recognisable faces, but he is increasingly becoming less and less relevant on the course. That’s not to say that he hasn’t had an extremely impressive career; five PGA Tour wins (including The Players Championship) and two in Europe, and four Ryder Cup appearances is an impressive haul given the competitive nature of top-tier golf, but it’s almost 14 months since his last top-10 and more than two years since his last win.
But that hasn’t stopped Rickie becoming a virtual human billboard. Apart from Puma, Cobra and TaylorMade – whose clothing and equipment are essential items – Rickie has endorsement deals with Farmers Insurance, Rocket Mortgage, American Express, Mercedes-Benz, Corona, Hyperice, 2Undr and Grant Thornton, meaning he spends roughly 30 days a year shooting commercials and appearing at corporate functions in one guise or another.
To ordinary working stiffs like you and I, 30 days a year may seem like child’s play, but add in 25 tournaments, pre-tournament practice rounds, and travel to and from both competitive and commercial commitments, that doesn’t leave much time for extensive work on your game.
But therein lies the crux of the issue. If you’re getting in excess of $10 million a year before you’ve even swung a club, where does the motivation to work your proverbial ass off come from? And of course, by selling a piece of yourself to so many companies, you are no longer your own master. Not unreasonably, Farmers Insurance will dictate that along with sporting their logo and starring in their commercials, playing the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines is another prerequisite to them opening their chequebook.
And what is the issue there? Well, it’s a golf course that clearly doesn’t fit his eye. In his last eight starts at Torrey, his best finish is a tie for 53rd with five missed-cuts. His record at Palm Springs and Detroit Golf Club may be a little better, but his obligations to Am-Ex and Rocket Mortgage respectively mean skipping either of those is not an option.
Ironically, despite emerging as a sort of edgy nonconformist, Fowler has somehow managed more than a decade on tour without saying or doing anything remotely controversial. Don’t be fooled by the brightly coloured outfits, if there was a colour to accurately match the public persona, it’d definitely be vanilla. That’s not a criticism, by the way, more an acknowledgement that the Oklahoma State graduate has realised that looking the part but saying little is a lucrative strategy.
With little over a month to the Masters, Rickie is in serious danger of missing out for the first time since his rookie season. Only a victory or a return to the world’s top-50 will see him extend a 10-year streak, but his absence from golf’s crown jewel would be the first chink in his marketability armour.
Not that it’ll matter to the PGA Tour. If Rickie’s face (and many logos) keeps the corporate world happy, then that’s all that counts. The Players Championship is next week and Rickie is a former champion. Watch this space…