At 21, Rickie Fowler a proven commodity
Look at Rickie Fowler. Really, take a look at the kid. First thing you notice is that baby face, making him appear more like some pro golfer's son or nephew tagging along inside the ropes than a player who has already proven himself.
Then there's the wardrobe. His answer to Tiger Woods' red on Sundays is a garish head-to-toe orange getup, the dominant color of both prison jumpsuits and his beloved Oklahoma State, all while brandishing a cap three sizes too big, its flat bill covering a Justin Bieber haircut.
Or is it the other way around? Sporting a style unique to this gentlemen's game, the Fowler phenomenon has grown so large that maybe it's the teen idol who is sporting a Rickie 'do. Just ask a guy who has spent time around each of them.
"Rickie Fowler is like -- I don't know, I think he's cooler than Justin Bieber," another pop icon, Justin Timberlake, recently said at his eponymous golf tournament. "Did I throw the gauntlet down? Oh, whatever. I'm taking Rickie Fowler."
He isn't the only one. Exactly one year ago, Fowler was prepping for the final stage of the annual gut-wrencher known lovingly as Q-school. He calmly aced the playing exam to earn his PGA Tour playing privileges and if he hasn't set the golf world ablaze since then, he's at least provided the kindling and lighter fluid.
In his rookie campaign, he made the cut in 20 of 28 starts, posting seven top-10s that included runner-up finishes in Phoenix and Columbus, and finished 22nd on the money list. He was also named to the United States Ryder Cup roster as a captain's pick, where despite the team's loss he flourished, especially while earning a come-from-behind half-point in his final-day singles match.
"We knew how good he was, but you know how hard it is for it to happen that fast. It was pretty wild and very impressive," said Joe Skovron, who has caddied for Fowler in all but one of his professional starts. "His personality is what separates him. If you asked the big guys who have that 'it' factor, they would say they all see it in him. Whatever that 'it' is -- it's a mentality, it's an inner confidence, a belief in yourself. He doesn't have to tell you he's confident, he just believes it."
A few days from now, either Fowler or fellow 21-year-old wunderkind Rory McIlroy will be named 2010 Rookie of the Year, an honor of which the Murrieta, Calif., native said, "I definitely care about it, but it's not going to change who I am." While his clothes might scream "brash punk," Fowler is anything but, instead harboring an old soul, wise beyond his years and mature to the point where an ID check is almost necessary.
As if that proof was requested, ask Fowler whom he voted for -- every PGA Tour member receives a vote for season-ending awards -- and he only strengthens the theory that those unconventional hats simply accessorize a good head on his shoulders.
"I voted for Rory," he divulged. "I'm not going to vote for myself, I'll tell you that. That's just not who I am. He had a great year; he's definitely deserving."
No offense to stalwarts like Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker, but neither is exactly moving the needle when it comes to the younger demographic that golf so desperately needs. Fowler isn't the most accomplished young player in the game (McIlroy owns two career victories to his zero), nor is he the youngest accomplished player (Ryo Ishikawa and Noh Seung-yul, each 19, are hovering near the top of their respective tour's money lists; Matteo Manassero, 17, is rapidly climbing up the world ranking), but Fowler might be the most important -- at least in the U.S.
For a sport that has simultaneously endured parity and parody in the wake of Woods' high-profile personal scandal and subsequent winless season, it's vital for the up-and-coming superstars to rise in status quicker than maybe ever before. That might be a tall order for a kid who hasn't won since his college days, but it's one that both Fowler and his peers believe is well within his grasp.
"He's got a beautiful swing," said Hunter Mahan, who defeated Fowler in a playoff in Phoenix and was later a Ryder Cup teammate. "He just knows how to play the game, has a good attitude and I think he knows himself extremely well. He doesn't need to go out there and find anything. He knows his game and he knows what he needs to do. He's had a bunch of missed opportunities to win, but I don't think his confidence is hurting."
"One of the things that Hunter said is, 'Great players win,'" Fowler recalled. "I want to be a great player, so we've got to get that first win out the way."
That he says "we" -- a reference to "my caddie; my agent; my mom, who is like my personal assistant; my financial advisors; my accountant; my family" -- as opposed to the singular "I" speaks volumes about his maturity level and mentality toward the game.
There's a delicate tightrope for any athlete to walk between confident and cocky, but Fowler has seemingly done so without wavering. He answers questions with thoughtful responses, believes in himself without bragging about it and remains humble even when listing his goals for the upcoming campaign.
"Obviously, I've got to go back at it and got to keep the card," he said. "Just going to try to play well and hopefully that's not something I need to worry about too much. But a win is definitely high up there on the priority list."
Don't expect a sophomore slump. Whether Fowler wins top rookie honors this week or falls short to McIlroy, he's on the precipice of even bigger and better things. Sure, the youngster invokes his own style, but he also possesses plenty of substance to go with it.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.
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