NAPA, Calif. – New season, new equipment, new caddie, new coach and a strong start at the Fortinet Championship for Rickie Fowler.
The five-time PGA Tour winner announced last month that he parted ways with Joe Skovron, his caddie of 13 years. Last week, Fowler confirmed reports that he also ended a relationship of more than three years with swing instructor John Tillery, and he switched into a more forgiving version of Cobra irons this week for good measure.
If anyone needed a re-boot, it was Fowler, who last won at the 2019 WM Phoenix Open and barely snuck into the first playoff event at No. 125 (out of a field of 125) in the standings last season. When his season ended in Memphis, he decamped to Baker’s Bay in the Bahamas and decompressed for five days.
So far, so good. Fowler showed up at this week’s season opener of the 2022-23 PGA Tour campaign with renewed purpose and played the brand of golf he’s more accustomed to – a bogey-free 5-under 67 at Silverado Resort’s North Course.
“I missed a 10-foot putt on No. 18, my ninth hole, otherwise I would have what I would consider a perfect card with no bogeys and no fives on the card,” Fowler said.
Fowler is one stroke off the early lead set by S.H. Kim and Ben An, who opened the new season with three birdies in his return to the Tour after a season spent on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Fowler was accompanied by veteran looper Ricky Romano for his splendid start.
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“He’s about my size,” said the 5-foot-9-inch Fowler. “So, I won’t look too small out there, which is a good thing.”
Romano, who played at the University of Houston before turning to caddying, grew up in Fowler’s hometown of Murrieta, California, and is four years older than him.
“He’s a good fit for me just because he’s someone I know, someone I know is a good player and I can trust his insight from the get-go,” Fowler said.
Fowler had only kind words for Tillery, his former swing coach.
“I couldn’t love the guy anymore, and we gave it a good run but it was almost like speaking another language in a way and it never really clicked,” Fowler said. “I’ll take a lot out of the time we spent together. It’s not like the last few years were for nothing. I gained a lot of knowledge and I feel like I’m in a very good spot.”
Fowler will be relying on his former coach Butch Harmon for swing advice.
“I love it,” said Webb Simpson, a fellow Harmon disciple. “What Butch does is he keeps it so simple for us. Every time I’ve gone to see Butch, he makes me feel like I’m playing better than I am, swinging better than I am and I leave with two or three things to think about. That’s it.”
Fowler always had remained in contact with Harmon, who he last spent time with ahead of the CJ Cup last October. Fowler held the 54-hole lead before finishing T-3, his best result of the season. So far, they have been working together via video and phone and will spend time together next month in Las Vegas.
“It’s going to take some time,” Fowler said before what he’s working on at the range translates to the course. “The way I hit some shots and drove the ball today, it’s good feedback to just build more confidence.”
As if Fowler hadn’t shaken things up enough, he also inserted the latest version of Cobra’s CB irons into his bag this week.
“I figure if I was getting all the same numbers but they were more forgiving, why make it any harder on yourself?” he said. “Kind of check the ego at the door and play what works.”
The tournament was delayed 90 minutes due to morning fog. Fowler wasn’t the only one to get off to a hot start at the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed layout. Sahith Theegala, who made the Tour Championship last season, and Greyson Sigg — who said he spent two weeks sitting on the couch, got married last week in North Carolina and had barely touched a club during his three-week off-season — were among seven players who shot 5-under 67.
“There’s something to be said with coming out to a tournament with really no expectations and coming out and playing good,” said Sigg of his bogey-free start.
Story originally appeared on GolfWeek