Fowler continues to go full throttle

11/12/2009 - Golf Rickie Fowler

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In most places, he is not even legal. Can't buy a drink, can't rent a car, the unfortunate plight of a college underclassman.

But Rickie Fowler has left the world of books behind to pursue his dream of playing professional golf, and although he still must adhere to some rules of the real world, others do not apply.

The golf ball does not know how old you are, and Fowler is not striking it these days like some wide-eyed kid who is just happy to jump on the rides at the Magic Kingdom.

He is 20 years old; he has signed multiyear endorsement deals with Titleist and Puma (hence the painter/train conductor lids); and it likely is safe to say that no matter what happens here this week at the Children's Miracle Network Classic, he'll have some cash to burn.

Just two months into his professional career, Fowler is a millionaire.

The endorsement deals each involved seven figures, and he has delivered on the course, as well, with top-10 finishes in his only two starts as a pro on the PGA Tour -- meaning he is playing this weekend with the distinct possibility of earning his PGA Tour card for 2010 by playing just three tournaments.

His first-round 66 on Thursday at Disney's Palm Course was his ninth straight round in the 60s since he began playing on the PGA Tour as a pro just a few weeks ago.

"I knew I could come out and play with these guys," said Fowler, who will switch Friday to the tougher Magnolia Course, where the final 36 holes also will be played. "But to come out for two events and finish tied for seventh and lose in a playoff … you know, I definitely wasn't expecting to do that.

"I'm not doing anything special. It's not like my game's all of a sudden elevated to some crazy level or anything. I'm just playing my game, and I've put together some pretty good rounds and been able to save myself at times."

Fowler, who played college golf at Oklahoma State and hails from California, began his run with a tie for seventh at the Justin Timberlake tournament near his new home of Las Vegas.

A week later, he found himself in the back-nine mix at the Frys.com Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he ended up in a three-way playoff, eventually falling to Troy Matteson.

Fowler won $533,700 in those two tournaments, which would rank 135th on the PGA Tour -- if he were a member. Because he surpassed the 150th spot on the money list, he was able to skip the first stage of PGA Tour qualifying and also will be exempt from the second stage next week if he remains in the top 150.

But the big goal this week is to earn enough money to move into the top 125 on the money list. That would earn him his card for next year and allow Fowler to bypass the final stage of Q-school.

"I definitely think about it off the course," Fowler said. "When I'm out here playing, I'm just trying to get the ball in the hole as fast as I can and get things going. It was a nice start today, and it's definitely a good jump start to the week, but there is a lot of golf left. … It'll be nice to not have to go to third stage [Q-school finals] if I don't have to, but I'm fully prepared to go if I do."

Fowler can all but guarantee avoiding a trip to West Palm Beach, Fla. for the six-round, 108-hole qualifier (Dec. 2-7) if he finishes in the top 10 at Disney.

And in doing so, he would join some pretty elite company.

Since the PGA Tour went to the all-exempt, top-125 system in the early 1980s, only Gary Hallberg, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods, Charles Howell and Ryan Moore have managed to come out of college and earn their PGA Tour card without going to Q-school.

Mickelson did it by winning the Tucson Open as an amateur in 1991; Woods won in his fifth start at Las Vegas in 1996, then won again here at Disney and qualified for the Tour Championship in just seven starts.

Fowler is about $80,000 behind No. 125 David Duval and probably needs to get to $650,000 to be safe. That would mean earning $100,000, which he could do with a 12-place finish or better this week.

So far, so good.

"He's a cool little guy, and I want all those young guys to keep coming," said Will Mackenzie, who has needed 23 events to earn $586,836 this year -- or about $33,000 more than Fowler has made in two. "It's good for the game to have good young players. I hope he kills it. I hope he wins tournaments.

"It ain't easy out here. Nobody's going to do what Tiger's doing. … Maybe this is one of the guys that's going to whip off a couple majors."

Fowler got off to a slow start Thursday, but finished with birdies on five of his last six holes, including chipping in from 40 feet for a birdie at the 18th.

The winner of the Ben Hogan Award as college player of the year as a freshman, Fowler had gained a good bit of experience playing in pro events as an amateur. He has competed in two U.S. Opens and lost in a playoff earlier this year at a Nationwide Tour event.

Had he elected to turn pro earlier, perhaps this tension to earn his card would already be alleviated. But Fowler chose to remain an amateur so he could compete in the Walker Cup, where he went 4-0 as he helped the U.S. team to victory.

It seems the only thing that can stop Fowler is to deny him an opportunity, and that happened two weeks ago when the Viking Classic was canceled because of rain and poor course conditions. That lost chance cost Fowler a tournament in which he could have earned more money to move into the top 125.

But the positive news is that the benefits of his top-10 finish at the Fry's transferred to Disney, meaning he didn't need a sponsor exemption to get into the field here.

"I think it's worked out fine," he said.

Fowler has a need for speed, shown by his affinity for dirt bikes and motocross, a hobby he still enjoys, but to a lesser degree since an accident at 15 led to a broken foot and a blown-out knee.

He also swings fast and doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about it, either.

"I just step up and go," he said. "I've always just stepped up and hit it."

And so far, that hasn't been very often.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.