LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rickie Fowler has already improved on what had been his best performance in each of this year’s first three major championships, and he is quick to credit someone else for playing a big part in that success.
Fowler began working with instructor Butch Harmon last December, not knowing how soon the changes they’d make together might show on the course. They haven’t brought Fowler a second win on the PGA Tour yet — the 2012 Wells Fargo remains his lone victory — but he has transformed himself, at least in the big events, into someone who is getting quite used to being near the lead.
At the Masters, Fowler tied for fifth (a tie for 27th had been his best finish at Augusta). At the US Open, he tied for second, a year after he tied for 10th. And at the Open Championship, Fowler again tied for second (a tie for fifth had been his previous best).
No other player has top-five finishes in all three majors this year. Now Fowler is at Valhalla Golf Club, getting ready for the 96th PGA Championship. He is hungry for that first major title.
“I’ve put myself in great positions,” said Fowler. “This year has definitely been the most comfortable I’ve felt in the majors, but I think the more that I can put myself in contention on Sunday, and possibly in the final group, I’ll just get more and more comfortable.
“Being comfortable means more confidence, and we’ll keep knocking at the door.”
He first knocked on Harmon’s door at last year’s Open Championship, when Fowler missed the cut at Muirfield and was admittedly struggling with his game. That initial range session has turned into much more, with Harmon helping Fowler with pretty much everything: swing, mental approach, and course strategy.
Harmon is one of the game’s best teachers, having helped Tiger Woods win his first eight majors, and guiding some of the game’s biggest talents, past and present: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Greg Norman, and Fred Couples. These players have made Harmon very rich and very famous. But Fowler sees it a different way.
“Butch has been around a while,” said Fowler. “He’s taken a couple guys to world No. 1 and he’s got quite a few majors in his name.
“As far as being a coach, he’s been there and seen it all. When he tells me something, you can definitely trust his advice. I was just ready to see what I was able to do with Butch and what we’re able to make out of myself and my game.”
If Fowler wants to make it 4 for 4 this year on recording his best finishes in the majors, he’ll need to be 18th or better. He tied for 19th last year at Oak Hill.
Dufner hopes to rest
At No. 52 in the points standings, Jason Dufner is guaranteed to qualify for at least the first two FedEx Cup playoff events, which would include the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston. But there’s no guarantee he’ll actually be there. Because of a nagging neck injury that required an epidural last week, Dufner is hoping to take a block of time off after he defends his PGA title this week, with rest and rehabilitation the goal. That could put the playoff events at risk. Dufner is eighth on the Ryder Cup points list, and only the top nine after this week’s PGA Championship automatically qualify. He’d like to make the team on his own, knowing that the injury would likely prevent Tom Watson from using a captain’s pick on him. “Mr. Watson may feel uncomfortable, but I would not feel uncomfortable taking the playoffs off if I needed to, and coming in, trying to be healthy and participate in the Ryder Cup,” said Dufner, who played in the Ryder Cup two years ago. “But to be honest, [the neck injury] is kind of a blessing. I need to take a serious look at my health and maybe make a better effort to be in better shape. Because if you don’t have your health out here — as you see with a pretty prominent player and myself — it’s pretty hard to be competitive.”
Earlier tee time
With golf coming to the Olympics in 2016, the PGA Championship will have a date change that year so it won’t conflict with the Games in Brazil. The 2016 PGA, scheduled for Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., will be July 28-31, leaving only one week between majors, since the Open Championship is July 14-17. The Olympics start Aug. 5 . . . Watson announced Wednesday that Steve Stricker will be a vice captain for this year’s US Ryder Cup team. Stricker, 47, competed in each of the last three Ryder Cups . . . Once again, fans can help determine where a hole will be located during final-round play at the PGA. This year it comes at the 16th, a 508-yard par-4. Fans can visit www.pga.com/vote through 7 p.m. Saturday and choose one of four hole locations. The interactive feature made its debut at the PGA last year . . . If this week’s winner is someone who has already won a major, it will be only the fourth time since the debut of the Masters that all four major champions were repeat winners. Bubba Watson (Masters), Martin Kaymer (US Open) and Rory McIlroy (Open Championship) had all won majors before this year. The only time all four major winners had done it came in 1972, 1980, and 2000.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.