Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2011

Fowler Wins His First; More Seem Certain To Follow

From the moment Rickie Fowler turned pro in 2009, it has only been a matter of time. Last weekend in Korea the moment arrived. Wearing his trademark orange on Sunday, Fowler won his first tournament as a professional at the OneAsia Tour’s Kolon Korea Open. The 22-year old turned in a dominating performance; leading from the start and finishing at 16-under, returning four sub-par rounds highlighted by an 8-under 63 on Saturday.

While obviously not a PGA Tour event, this tournament shouldn’t be dismissed. Official World Golf Ranking points are based in significant part on the strength of the field at each event, and Fowler’s win propelled him from 36th to 24th in the rankings. Reigning U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy finished a distant second, six strokes behind, and former PGA Championship winner Y. E. Yang was fourth, eleven shots off Fowler’s torrid pace.

Great things have been predicted for Fowler since well before he gave up his amateur status. Growing up in California he played mostly at a driving range as a child, where he largely taught himself how to swing a golf club. As a teenage phenom he spent 36 weeks at the top of the World Amateur Golf Rankings in 2007 and 2008. Of the 18 golfers who have ascended to the top of those rankings in their five-year history, only one has spent more time as the preeminent amateur. He won the Big 12 Championship while at Oklahoma State, qualified for the U.S. Open twice, and was a remarkable 7-1 as a member of two Walker Cup teams. After his perfect 4-0 performance led the 2009 U.S. team’s rout of Great Britain and Ireland, it was apparent that there were no more amateur peaks to be climbed for Fowler.

His breakthrough moment as a professional nearly came just one month later. At the Open, his second PGA Tour event, Fowler lost in a playoff after finishing in a three-way tie for first. It was the first of four runner-up finishes that he has recorded on the PGA Tour in the past two years. Still, given the expectations the fact that as a pro Fowler has teed it up in 57 Tour events without winning might seem surprising.

More likely it’s just a reminder of how hard it really is to win a PGA Tour event; because Fowler has shown time and time again that he has the talent to beat any field. In addition to the four second-place finishes, he has a total of thirteen top ten’s, including seven in 2010 when he was voted PGA Tour Rookie of the Year by his fellow players. U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Corey Pavin took some grief for making Fowler one of his captain’s picks for the 2010 team. Ignoring his Walker Cup record, the critics complained the Fowler was too young and inexperienced. The youngest U.S. player in the history of the matches responded with an epic performance in the Sunday singles. Playing against Italian Edoardo Molinari, Fowler was 4-down after 12 holes and dormie as the two left the 14th green. All the young and inexperienced Fowler did from that point was birdie each of the last four holes to tie Molinari and steal a half point for the U.S.

Which makes it all the more surprising that Fred Couples, U.S. captain for the upcoming Presidents Cup matches rushed to make Tiger Woods one of his two captain’s picks for the team that will travel down to Royal Melbourne to engage an International squad next month. Bill Haas, Couples’ other pick, is another fine under-30 golfer who has won three times on Tour, including this year’s Tour Championship. Woods, as pretty much every golf fan knows, hasn’t won anywhere in over two years and has seen his World Ranking fall all the way to 52nd. In using one of his picks to put Woods on the team, deserving or not, Couples passed over not just Rickie Fowler, but also the likes of PGA Champion Keegan Bradley and two-time 2011 winner Mark Wilson.

While Fowler was winning in Korea, Woods was finishing in a tie for 30th at the Open, ten strokes behind Bryce Molder. Of course, he remains the most famous golfer on the planet, still the one who sells tickets and boosts TV ratings whenever he is in the field. Given the time difference between the U.S. and Australia, NBC will be showing the Presidents Cup matches on tape delay. Most viewers will know the results before they turn on their sets, a fact not likely to increase viewership. Given that reality, perhaps Couples was doing the network a favor by naming Woods to the team.

In the end the Presidents Cup is just an exhibition anyway, a recently created event exploiting the huge popularity of the biennial Ryder Cup matches. What really matters to every PGA Tour pro are victories at the Tour’s weekly events, and at the game’s four majors. For the last decade and a half, no golfer has done that more often than Tiger Woods. But that was then, and this is now. Over the next five years Tiger Woods will advance towards age 40; Rickie Fowler will move into his mid-20’s. Fans who have spent years looking for that trademark red shirt on Sunday afternoon should start learning to like orange.

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