Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 10, 2012

Rickie Breaks Through

The Tiger Era has been replaced by the Age of Parity on the PGA Tour. With the Players’ Championship underway in Ponte Vedra Beach, the Tour has arrived at the twenty-first stop on its 2012 schedule. The first twenty tournaments have produced nineteen different winners, with only Hunter Mahan posting multiple victories to date. Four of the nineteen winners recorded their maiden victory on the Tour, including the winners in both of the last two weeks leading up to the Players’. But even at a time when Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem may be considering borrowing the NFL’s old slogan about “on any given Sunday” for his next marketing campaign, not all winners are created equal. Two weeks ago Jason Dufner won for the first time in his 164th career start when he beat Ernie Els in a playoff at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans. Last week it was Rickie Fowler who garnered his first Tour victory when he birdied the first hole of a sudden death playoff against Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte. While Tour officials were no doubt very pleased for Dufner, they had to be ecstatic about Fowler finally entering the winner’s circle.

That the word “finally” should attach to a victory by a 23-year old in just his third full season on Tour is an indication of the enormous burden of sky-high expectations that Rickie Fowler has had to carry since turning pro in September 2009. For 36 weeks in 2007 and 2008 he was the top ranked amateur golfer in the world. He played on two Walker Cup teams, compiling a record of 7-1 including a perfect 4-0 mark at the 2009 Walker Cup, his final event as an amateur. He qualified for both the 2008 and 2009 U.S. Open as an amateur while also playing in three other PGA Tour events. Despite the fact that his first Tour event as a professional wasn’t until October 2009, very late in the season, Fowler sought to earn his 2010 playing privileges without going to Q-School by winning an amount at least equal to the earnings of the golfer in 125th place on the final money list. While in the end he fell short of that goal, he did earn more than $570,000 in just three events, highlighted by a second place finish at the 2009 Frys.com Open. After easily earning his card through the five round grind of the Tour’s qualifying tournament, the popular sentiment was that Fowler would certainly taste victory during his rookie season.

Instead he started the 2010 season slowly, missing the cut in three of his first four tournaments. It was a swift reminder of the enormously high level of competition on golf’s premier tour. Still Fowler showed flashes of the promise that every close observer of the game knew he possessed. He recorded his first top-ten finish with a solo second in Phoenix in February, and added two more top-ten’s at the Verizon Heritage and the Wells Fargo in the spring. Then in June he went into the final round of the Memorial Tournament with the lead; but shot a one over par 73 and watched as Justin Rose passed him for the victory. Still the second place finish at the Memorial was enough to move him into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings.

Fowler’s improving play no doubt also helped convince U.S. Ryder Cup team captain Corey Pavin to name him to the American squad. It was a controversial decision given Fowler’s lack of professional experience. At 21 years and 9 months when the matches began at Celtic Manor Resort in Wales, he became the youngest golfer ever to play for the United States. In the singles matches, which were delayed until Monday by torrential rains, Fowler made Pavin look like a genius. With the U.S. team trying to overcome a two point deficit at the start of the final day of play, Fowler went down early against Italy’s Edoardo Molinari. The match appeared to be all but over after the 14th. Molinari was 4-up and had Fowler dormie. But the youngest player on the course showed the steely determination of a wizened veteran. In a remarkable display of shot-making and will, Fowler ran off four straight birdies to halve the match and earn the U.S. an improbable half-point.

Fowler’s rookie season ended without the victory that many expected. But his seven top-ten finishes in twenty-eight events earned him more than $2.8 million, good for 22nd place on the final money list. Perhaps more important than the size of his bankroll was the respect he had earned from his peers, who voted him the Tour’s Rookie of the Year. Then last year Fowler seemed to regress. As victory again eluded him he recorded just four top-ten finishes and his earnings fell to just over $2 million. He did have a bright spot in October, when he got his first professional victory in Korea at an event on the OneAsia Tour. But on the PGA Tour he again found himself leading a tournament going into the final round, this time at the AT&T National in July, and again went high on Sunday to squander any chance of victory.

With more than $5 million in winnings in just over two seasons, Fowler was clearly going to be able to make a very good living playing golf. But the Tour already counts among its ranks plenty of journeymen golfers who make a very comfortable living while recording just a handful of wins over lengthy careers, or in some cases never winning at all. That is not the career arc that people envisioned for the young player who is movie star handsome and who in his dealings with the media always seems both approachable and mature. Fowler’s promise, along with his good looks and a clothing contract that has him instantly recognizable on the course in head-to-toe brilliant colors, including bright orange every Sunday to commemorate his time at Oklahoma State University, has made him a fan favorite. His appearance, along with Mahan, Bubba Watson, and Ben Crane as the Golf Boys boy band in the hilarious “Oh Oh Oh” music video has had nearly 5 million views on YouTube; showing a lot of would-be fans that the Tour’s next generation of stars are decidedly not your grandfather’s golfers, for whom plaid pants were considered a bold statement.

Which is why it’s good for Fowler, for golf fans, and for the PGA Tour that last weekend in Charlotte he was finally able to record Tour victory number one. Starting the final round in sixth place, three behind 54-hole leader Webb Simpson, he fired a 3-under par 69 to pass Simpson and two of the others ahead of him and catch Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points. With a three-way tie at 14-under par, Fowler, McIlroy and Points returned to the 18th tee for sudden death. All three found the fairway off the tee, but only Fowler was bold when it came time for the approach shots. With the pin tucked just on the front edge of the green and a water hazard near at hand, Fowler eschewed caution and took dead aim with a 51 degree wedge. The result was a perfect shot that stopped four feet from the hole. After both McIlroy and Points missed lengthy birdie putts Fowler rolled in his short one, permanently silencing any whispers about when or even whether he would begin to fulfill his promise.

Fowler acknowledged those whispers in interviews after the tournament, as well as some relief. Expectations may lack mass. They may be invisible to the eye. Yet they can still be an enormously heavy burden to carry. Last Sunday, with one bold stroke from the 18th fairway at Quail Hollow, young Rickie Fowler lightened the load. Having done so, one has to believe more than ever that a great golfing career lies ahead.

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Responses

  1. I predict many years ahead of Ricky and Rory walking down the 18th together on Sunday afternoon.


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