By Zak Kozuchowski
GolfWRX Managing Editor
Rickie Fowler has never shunned the spotlight.
The immensely talented 23-year-old has caught the attention of golf fans since he turned pro in 2009. And it’s not just his long hair, bright-colored clothing and signature flat-brimmed hat that have made him a focus of American golf. Fowler has proven that he has the game to become one of America’s premier players.
He earned PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, capping off the year with an impressive Ryder Cup showing that included four consecutive birdies to halve a match with Eduardo Molinari. He gave himself multiple chances to win golf tournaments that year, finishing second at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the Memorial Tournament.
We waited for Fowler to take the next step in 2011, to finally claim his first PGA Tour title. He impressed us with a fifth-place finish at the British Open and a second-place finish at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and finally broke through for a non-PGA Tour win at the Kolon Korea Open. But despite finishing 43rd in the FedExCup in 2011, many people began to question Fowler’s skills. Why was it taking so long for him to win on the big stage?
Fowler’s playoff victory last week at the Wells Fargo Championship was proof that Fowler is the player that golf fans wanted him to be – a certification of his talents that was aided by the fact that it was a head-to-head victory over the young player that many have called to heir to Tiger Woods’ throne, Rory McIlroy.
After the win, congratulations poured out to Fowler on Twitter. The immediacy of praise for both Fowler’s game and nature puts him in a unique position as he moves forward with his career. The fans like him. The players respect him. Golf writers write nice things about him. He finally has a PGA Tour win under his bright-colored Puma belt. What could possibly go wrong.
When Fowler tees off Thursday at The Players Championship, he will enter a new level of media scrutiny. His threesome includes fellow “Golf Boy” and friend Hunter Mahan, but also the most polarizing player on the planet, Tiger Woods.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Fowler was asked how he felt about playing with a new category of players, such as Woods, based on his status as a PGA Tour winner.
“I don’t know if Tiger and I have played together in a tournament round,” Fowler said. “I’ve obviously been around him quite a bit with Ryder Cup, played a practice round with him there. Been a lot around him at Medalist, practicing, playing … We enjoy each other, and I enjoy practicing with him and being around him.”
Regardless of how much time Fowler has spent with Woods, Fowler’s status as a media darling likely makes it tough for him to understand the pressures that Woods faces each week as the face of American golf. For most players, winning on the PGA Tour is a relief – it buys some time from media scrutiny, and makes the future bad rounds easier to stomach. But for Woods, particularly in the pre-scandal period, each major victory seemed to add more pressure for him to keep winning.
Golf fans aren’t asking Fowler to become the next Woods and chase major championship records, but they are hoping that he continues to win. Already, many are saying that they can see Fowler rattling off a few wins in a row. It’s funny that just a few months before some of the same voices were saying that Fowler was overrated as a golfer.
There will be a push to create a rivalry between Fowler and McIlroy, also 23, who has three victories on Tour, including a major championship, the 2011 U.S. Open. But I think it’s still a little too soon to push that rivalry. McIlroy is first in four statistical categories, including birdie average, scoring average, all-around ranking and par breakers. He is also third in sand save percentage, FedExCup points and the money list. Fowler is only in the top 5 in one category, total driving. He is 15th in FedExCup points and 11th on the money list.
In McIlroy’s press conference, he was asked about his relationship with Fowler, which started while the two were competing as amateurs.
“I developed a really good relationship with him at the Walker Cup in 2007,” McIlroy said. “I felt like he was the best player on that team at the time, and he was also the nicest guy.”
That’s the key for me – for Fowler to continue to be the person that the fans, players and media have raved about. As much as I want Fowler to rise to the top of the Tour, it’s more important that he continues to radiate his orange-tinted positivity energy. And if you believe in karma, the wins should come. Probably not at the same pace as McIlroy, but they will come.