Season preview: Is Rickie Fowler ready to win?

Rickie Fowler won late last season in Korea, but begins 2012 anew with a quest to collect his first PGA Tour trophy.

Rickie Fowler won late last season in Korea, but begins 2012 anew with a quest to collect his first PGA Tour trophy.

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Editor's note: This story was published in January as a preview for the 2012 season. It is running unedited, despite Rickie Fowler's breakthrough PGA Tour win on Sunday in Charlotte.

• • •

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - Bill Teasdall and Barry McDonnell opened the Murrieta Valley Golf Range in fall 1992 on property that used to be a horse stable. One single-story portable building became the pro shop. Another was constructed for clubmaking and repair. The two structures, painted white with green trim, were set at ground level to give a look of permanence, a wise move because they still stand today.

The buildings are covered by a single overhang, under which the range’s diverse clientele lounges at benches and tables. Customers who grab a beer or soda out of the pro shop’s cooler pass a shrine to their favorite conversation topic, the mop-topped local kid who hit it big, Rickie Fowler. There’s a signed flag from his 2011 Masters debut, pictures from the Walker Cup and national magazine covers. A small black-and-white photo shows Fowler, probably 5 or 6 at the time, sitting cross-legged on the range’s putting green, sporting the same shaggy hairstyle as today.

Fowler started coming to the range just a few months after it opened. His grandfather, Yutaka (Fowler’s middle name), would pick up Rickie from school once a week. They’d play golf or fish, though one activity soon took preference. Teasdall remembers a young Fowler bear-hugging a large bucket of balls and rapidly shuffling off to the range, trying not to spill a single ball.

“His clubs would be dragging behind him,” Teasdall said. “He couldn’t get out there fast enough.”

Fowler is a quick mover. He has become one of the PGA Tour’s most popular players in two years as a pro, a star for the Internet age. He has started fashion trends and appeared in everything from feature films to viral videos. This year, he’ll share the cover of a video game with Tiger Woods.

“We’ve fit a lot into two years,” Fowler said.

He also has authored a memorable Ryder Cup performance, was the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and has earned more than $2 million in each season. The 2011 Korean Open, where he beat U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy by six shots, was his first professional victory. There’s one thing Fowler still hasn’t done – win on the PGA Tour – and he’s the first to concede it’s a hole in his resume that needs to be filled.

“I want to have an impact. I want to be a great player,” Fowler said. “I still have a lot of work to do. I still have to win on the PGA Tour. I still am working to be better. I still want to be the best player in the world at some point.”

His lack of a Tour victory is fodder for his detractors, the ones who don’t like how he wears his cap backward in interviews or his wardrobe choices. The critics have been drowned out in a sea of pastels, though. No other player on today’s Tour – outside of Woods and his Sunday red shirts – has so quickly popularized a signature wardrobe.

• • •

photo

Young Rickie Fowler fans patiently wait for an autograph near the clubhouse during the second round of THE PLAYERS Championship on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on May 13, 2011 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

Fowler’s impact can be seen easily during the pro-am at last month’s Chevron World Challenge. Traffic is light at Sherwood Country Club, but there are enough scenes such as this to confirm his popularity: A teenager presses himself against the gallery ropes, dressed head-to-toe in Puma, from the plaid pants to the belt buckle and blue shirt. His right arm, holding Fowler’s trademark orange hat, is fully extended as he cranes over the rope. Except for yelling into a bullhorn, there’s nothing more he could do to get Fowler’s attention. After Fowler, en route to the first tee, signs the hat, the boy turns to a volunteer and says, “That’s the only autograph I wanted all week.” Strong words, considering the star-studded Chevron field included not only Woods, but Steve Stricker, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Nick Watney and recent FedEx Cup champ Bill Haas.

A young boy, probably 5 or 6, wedges his way into the corner of the grandstand as Fowler prepares to tee off, trying to get as close as possible to his hero. The boy, wearing an orange jacket and Puma hat, steadies an iPhone on the railing as Fowler swings, then follows him in lockstep down the first hole.

As Fowler makes the turn, five kids, all wearing the same straight-brimmed hats, await autographs. They don’t discuss the merits of his long-iron play – Fowler had hit a 4-iron to 5 feet on the par-3 third, then knocked a hybrid to a similar distance on No. 8. No, they compare the real-life Rickie Fowler to the video-game version.

Fowler will be on the cover of this year’s edition of EA Sports’ Tiger Woods video game after winning an online popularity contest. Besides Woods, who is the game’s namesake and default player, Fowler is the most-used character in the Woods game by a large margin, according to EA Sports.

“One of the best qualities of Rickie is his ability to connect to multiple demographics,” said Bob Philion, the president of Cobra Puma Golf. “His skillful and mature play reaches avid golfers. His colorful and unique style connects with those who are young at heart, and the way he handles himself makes him a great role model for the youth in golf.”

Part of Fowler’s popularity is easily visible. He’s a neon beacon in an ocean of khakis and polos. He’s having fun on a Tour that too often takes itself too seriously. Part of his appeal is unquantifiable, even to those close to him.

“Rick’s always just had charisma without even trying,” Teasdall, 63, said. “He’s always drawn a crowd. I don’t know the answer.”

Alan Bratton, the Oklahoma State men’s assistant coach when Fowler played for the Cowboys, has seen it firsthand.

“When we were recruiting him, I’d have a plan for the day, to watch him for a few holes and then go watch a few other people. I never could get myself to tear away from his group. Hard to say exactly why, but he’s just fun to watch,” Bratton said. “First of all, he’s really, really good. He plays fast, and he plays with a smile on his face. He looks like he’s having the time of his life every single time.”

The reasons for his popularity have been recited many times. There’s the background in competitive motocross. That ended around New Year’s Day 2004, though, during Fowler’s freshman year of high school, when he broke his right foot in three places. The mishap convinced him to concentrate on golf. A few months later, at age 15, he shot 62 in the Southern California high school championship, shattering tournament records.

“I didn’t know much about him when he was little, but I always heard all the stories, all the legendary tales about the little kid shooting scores better than the big kids,” said PGA Tour player Brendan Steele, five years Fowler’s elder. Steele and Fowler played the same junior-golf circuit growing up. Regarding the 62 in the Southern California tournament, Steele said, “That was the one that kind of blew everyone away.”

Then there’s the clothing. Fowler’s orange Sunday outfit first gained attention at the 2008 U.S. Open, when he played the final round in a $20 pair of orange pants purchased from an outlet store. He claims to be an early adopter of the white belt, helping reintroduce that 1970s trend. His license plate in high school read, “WHT BELT.”

“I just didn’t want to blend in,” he said. “That was my personality, even though I’ve been more quiet and reserved.”

That deferential demeanor has endeared Fowler to his fellow PGA Tour players. His words never cause controversy. He has never called out another player. “He’s an even better person than he is a player,” said Tour player Bo Van Pelt, a fellow Oklahoma State alumnus. Fowler doesn’t drink. He was the designated driver in college. He lives in Jupiter, Fla., with fellow pros Cameron Tringale and Morgan Hoffmann, his teammates at the 2009 Walker Cup. Their nightlife is rather quiet. They went bowling on a recent evening.

Fowler’s swing is fast and looping, the result of swinging an adult-length driver during his early years. His small frame wasn’t strong enough to swing the club around his body, so he had to lift the club vertically, then drop it inside to avoid bottoming out behind the ball.

“Barry would always say, ‘Don’t go away from your signature move,’ ” Teasdall said. McDonnell, who died last year at age 75, knew the loop would lessen as Fowler grew stronger. McDonnell was a Ben Hogan fan who’d often watch a VHS tape of Hogan’s match with Sam Snead in an episode of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.”

“He’d say, ‘I watched Ben and Sam again last night. Ben got him again,’ ” Teasdall said.

McDonnell gave lessons under a pepper tree, nicknamed the Hogan Tree, that he planted when the range opened. “He used to hand-water it and nurse it along,” Teasdall said. McDonnell also nurtured Fowler’s career, passing along more life lessons than swing theory. Fowler never has been a technical player, preferring to play instead of practice.

Mike McGraw, Oklahoma State’s head coach, recalls Fowler playing 193 holes during a seven-day visit to Stillwater in September 2011. He had a fairly consistent routine during his two years at Oklahoma State. He’d arrive at Karsten Creek, eat a quick lunch, practice for about 20 minutes and then play.

“If we went out to play 18 holes, he’d hit some practice shots in between, but he always posted a score,” McGraw said. “He always made sure that he had a number on the board that day. If he hit a ball into the native grass, he would search and search and search. I know we searched more than five minutes on several occasions.”

And if Fowler didn’t find his ball? He’d often hike back to the tee, McGraw said.

Fowler wanted an honest assessment of his game. Likewise, Fowler himself is frank. He is open with the media, never cocooning himself, even on the rare occasion when he is criticized, such as for his final-round layup at the 2010 Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he finished second to Hunter Mahan by a shot.

His open-book policy may be one reason why, in an age when we’re increasingly skeptical of our celebrities, Fowler’s clean image resonates.

“He’s genuine,” said his caddie, Joe Skovron.

• • •

photo

Rickie Fowler signs his autograph for a fan during a practice round prior to the start of the 93rd PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club on August 9, 2011 in Johns Creek, Georgia.

Paul Goydos played with Fowler at this year’s Canadian Open. “There must’ve been 500 pictures taken of him that day. He’s a rock star for a number of reasons. He’s a cute kid, blah, blah, blah. He wears bright colors. He markets himself well, without question. But he also has some charisma, and, you know, he plays good,” said Goydos, an assistant captain for the 2010 Ryder Cup team, of which Fowler was a member. “He’s handled himself like a veteran right from the start. I’m not just saying the way he plays, but the way he carries himself, the way he treats volunteers, his attitude toward what he does for a living is very well beyond his years. You forget that he’s basically as old as my kids.”

Fowler, like Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, is a favorite of media and fellow players for his respectful demeanor. Both encounter a divided populace, though. The discourse surrounding Fowler isn’t as divisive, in large part because he’s not as open as Tebow with his faith (Fowler attends the PGA Tour’s Bible study group when he can), but there’s a contingent that isn’t charmed by Fowler’s style and can’t overlook his lack of a Tour victory. Consider these comments regarding a recent Golfweek.com story:

• “Golf is a game of tradition, so what is wrong with dressing traditionally, (instead of) dressing like a CLOWN? The only thing Rickie’s dress is lacking is the CLOWN’S NOSE!”

• “Does golf really need more old stale crusty personalities? I think not. (It’s) refreshing to finally see some interesting guys to root for on tour. . . . The game needs to grow. . . not grow old and die.”

• “I’m 63 and I think that Rickie is the best thing to happen to the Tour in a long time. The game is not healthy and it desperately needs young fans. He attracts them, and he does it in a good way.”

• “Call me when he wins something. . . . He is going to have to start winning or he will become irrelevant.”

And that is the crux of the debate surrounding Fowler. Feelings about him are derived from a person’s opinions not just on golf and its traditions but fame in general. There’s no question celebrity has been cheapened in the age of the Internet and reality TV. Cultural icons used to be along the ilk of DiMaggio, Unitas and Kennedy, men who excelled in their chosen fields. Now Kim Kardashian is famous for being, well, famous. Fowler’s fame isn’t without merit, though. He started 2012 in the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking, a meritocracy based on performance, not name recognition.

Critics view Twitter as a vapid vacuum, devoid of intelligence. Fowler enjoys connecting with his fans. Not long ago, he was looking up to PGA Tour players. The medium also has shown him that there are “haters” (his word), though.

“I feel like I have a lot more people who enjoy who I am and like me for who I am,” Fowler said. “I’m not going to change just because one person said this or that. I’ve definitely had to realize that I can’t please everyone.

“You can’t change just because of a couple people here and there.”

The Korean Open victory taught valuable lessons that have him optimistic that his first Tour victory could come this year. He has held the 54-hole lead in two PGA Tour events, the 2010 Memorial and 2011 AT&T National, and lost a playoff at the 2009 Frys.com Open. He has been runner-up four times in 55 PGA Tour starts as a professional.

“I focused a lot on making sure I stayed within myself, stayed patient and, with my swing, I made sure my rhythm was good, because I have a tendency to get quick and move through my pre-shot routine a little quick,” Fowler said after the victory in South Korea. “I talked everything through with Joe (Skovron) and focused on rhythm throughout the golf swing.”

Whether that elusive title comes this year or not, Fowler’s impact on the PGA Tour will be easy to see in 2012. It’ll be displayed in dozens of colors.

“Any time you have somebody that’s a good person, that has some style on the golf course, but backs it up with good results, people get behind that,”

Van Pelt said. “Some people just have the ‘it’ factor.”

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