While he’s still to decide if it will include a Scottish Open title defence, Rickie Fowler is bracing himself to be part of a “fun ride” for golf in 2016. It starts tomorrow when he sets out with world No 1 Jordan Spieth and third-ranked Rory McIlroy in a mouth-watering group in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.
Speaking as he prepared to play in the opening event on the European Tour’s Desert Swing for the second season running, Fowler was non-committal about being at Castle Stuart in July, which was a touch surprising given how much he enjoyed winning last year’s Aberdeen Asset Management sponsored -event at Gullane.
Defending a title is also regarded as one of golf’s unwritten rules and, in fairness to the American, he has still to actually decide his summer schedule, replying to being asked about both the Scottish Open and Irish Open that he’d only mapped out the “first couple of months and not got that far”.
His immediate focus is on rising to the occasion in the United Arab Emirates this week in the company of Spieth and McIlroy after organisers decided the chance to toss those two golfing Gladiators into the same group was too good to pass up at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Add Fowler, the world No 6 to the mix, and it promises to be a taste of things to come in the sport this season. “It’s going to be a fun ride this year,” predicted Fowler. “A lot of guys are playing well and the top guys look ready to kind of beat up each other.” Spieth, for example, won the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions in Hawaii by eight shots just under a fortnight ago, quite a opening statement as he bids to back up winning two majors last year.
It was quite a season for Fowler, too. He had already claimed the Players’ Championship at Sawgrass before winning in East Lothian then triumphed in the Deutsche Bank Championship, one of the FedEx Cup Play-Off events, as well. “The last two years have been very good for me when you look at the [four top-five] finishes in the majors and the wins last year,” added the 27-year-old. “I may not be ranked as high as either Jordan or Rory, but a major would be a huge step in the right direction and help me become a solid part of the talk about the younger generation of guys stepping up and becoming the best players in the world.”
As golf prepares for its return to the Olympics after a gap of just over 100 years, Fowler was asked if he’d prefer to become a gold medallist or major champion. “I’ll take a major,” he replied without even a hint of hesitation. He was then asked to pick between a major and a Ryder Cup win at Hazeltine in September. “That one’s tough,” he admitted, having been involved in the task force set up by the PGA of America in the wake of the US losing eight times in the last ten matches to the Europeans. “We want the Ryder Cup. I know the guys are fired up about that and it is definitely a goal.”
Making Darren Clarke’s team for that match in Minnesota is one of Martin Kaymer’s 2016 goals, although he reckons holing the putt that secured a successful trophy defence for Europe at Minnesota in the last clash on the other side of the Atlantic did little to raise his profile in Germany. Neither has becoming a two-time major champion. “When people see my face in the newspapers, 90 per cent of Germans say, ‘who is that guy’,” claimed Kaymer, a three-times winner of this event who still bears the odd mental scar from a year ago, when he lost a ten-shot lead to let Frenchman Gary Stal take the title.
Kaymer is excited about the Olympics but says he doesn’t have a look-in to be Germany’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in Rio. “I’m not as well known as the likes of other athletes such as table tennis player Timo Boll or footballers like Sebastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer or Mario Gotze,” he said. “Winning two majors and playing in a Ryder Cup three times is a great achievement but not compared to what others have achieved. I also don’t think I’d like to have that honour in my first Olympics as you are kind of the leader of the team.”
He reckons Spieth, who claimed the honour of being world No 1 at just 22, could be better cut out to handle the pressure than he was at 26.
“It’s very difficult when you are that young, especially in America where sport is so big. You need to have a lot of respect for it and I think Jordan handles it very well,” observed Kaymer. “I can handle it now because I have the experience from the past and, if I get back to world No 1 again, then fair enough. But is that the position I would like to be in every day? Definitely not. I would rather win the tournaments that I want to win and I’m 50 per cent there with two majors.”