KAPALUA, Hawaii – There’s a perception that pro golfers so often are pressed in the mold of Stepford Wives, brothers of the same vanilla ilk who swing alike, dress alike, scowl alike, gripe alike and measure their daily earthly existence in the ice-cold currency of birdies and bogeys.
And then there’s Rickie Fowler, the young man scheduled to strike the first tee shot at today’s season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. Too serious? All business? Puh-lease. Sure, Rickie’s Hawaiian prep for the season opener included three practice rounds around the rolling Plantation Course, but just as important was the creation of his weeklong All-Island X-Games. There’s Rickie, hiking and standing beneath a waterfall. Checking out the violent surf at famed Jaws in Maui’s Pe’ahi. On the ocean, chasing after fish. Leaping from the resort’s Cliff House from a 30-foot-high perch into the azure waters off Kapalua Bay. Hanging out with his Red Bull team buddies Ian Walsh and Kai Lenny.
There he goes, flying downhill on his mountain bike, like a tiny pebble careening down a stone wall.
“I put up some (Twitter) posts, and people are like, ‘Shouldn’t you be out practicing?’ ” Fowler said, laughing playfully at the thought. “This is our reward for winning last year. We get to come out here and enjoy the island. I’m for sure on island time, just hanging out.”
The PGA Tour is a better place for having a young ambassador such as Rickie Fowler, or just plain “Rickie” for those who don the wildly vibrant orange, aqua and purple colors that he does and transform Tour galleries into a moving bouquet of pastels. He’s one of a handful of players in today’s game who is significantly moving the needle.
Fowler is talented at the sport he plays, plays the game with a proper respect, and to young and old, makes a stoic, stodgy game appear, well, so hip. Think of a young, tan, nattily-dressed Frank Sinatra with a presence beyond his years, only with a far better short game.
In a game that can be as stuffy as a Harvard-Yale chess match, Fowler is light, and fun, and making sure he’s enjoying this journey that began as a young lad in SoCal swinging a men’s driver that was bigger than he. No one needs to approach him with a blaring bullhorn to tell him how lucky he is. He knows it, and he appreciates it. On his popular Instagram account (therealrickiefowler), he states, “I get to play golf for a living … can’t beat that!!!”
“He’s a guy who makes the game interesting,” said Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo, one of our game’s more astute observers. “It’s a sport of clones; he’s not one. He’s by no means cookie-cutter, with his X-Games mentality and the all-orange on Sundays. He’s different. There’s a void to be filled by the young guys out here, and I think there’s an opportunity for Rickie to have a big year.”
Nobilo’s eyes were opened to Fowler when Nobilo was in Asia for a tournament broadcast three years ago. He saw first-hand that it was the young kid in the bright Puma gear with whom most every fan wanted a picture. The most highly sought autograph that week? Fowler’s.
Fowler, who turned 24 last month, had a breakthrough season in 2012, mainly because it included the one large accomplishment that skeptics had impatiently waited on him to deliver: an official PGA Tour victory. It arrived in May at the Wells Fargo Championship, where one of the two men he conquered in a playoff just happened to be Rory McIlroy, the 23-year-old wunderkind from Northern Ireland against whom everyone wants to measure Fowler.
“I’m definitely a few wins behind him, a couple majors,” deadpanned Fowler, who starts the year at No. 31 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “But no, definitely I look forward to playing against Rory for a long time. I hope that I can catch him at some point. You know, he’s the No. 1 player in the world right now for a reason. He’s played the best, hands down, in the last two years. … I’ve got plenty of time to catch him.”
Fowler saw nice strides in his game last season, when he advanced through the FedEx Cup playoffs and qualified for his first Tour Championship. He drove the ball much better, and that took some pressure off having to scramble so much. And now that he’ll be seeing tournament courses for the third and fourth go-around on Tour, he’s noticing an enhanced level of comfort in his surroundings.
Not all went as planned in 2012, as he fell short of making the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Two years earlier, he’d risen on the big stage at Celtic Manor in Wales with four closing birdies to to keep U.S. victory hopes alive with an improbable singles halve against Europe’s Edoardo Molinari.
But after a red-hot May in which he won in Charlotte and contended at The Players and Colonial, Fowler endured a frustrating summer that was hampered by inflamed sacroiliac joints caused by a small change in his golf posture. (“Bad habits over time,” he shrugs.) He said the injury was like having a bruise in his lower back, something he managed with a few pain pills and worked out by making some swing adjustments in the offseason. He still says he’s not 100 percent healthy, but as a kid who grew up flying through the air on dirt bikes and absorbing jarring landings back to earth, he’s no stranger to a few nagging aches and pains.
It’s the daredevil side of Fowler that makes him so at home here on Maui, where the outdoor activities and their inherent dangers are so prevalent and inviting. Does he have some daredevil gene in him?
“I’m always going to have it,” he said. “I love being in the dirt, love having fun, love the adrenaline. If I’m not getting the adrenaline going for a par 5 in two, or being in contention, I’ll find a way (to get it going) on a couple of offweeks.
“It might be mountain-bike riding, which is one of my ways of staying in shape. You go out for a good ride, and you get to play on the downhill coming down. You’ve got to live life a little.”
These days, Rickie Fowler is doing more than living life a little. He’s having a blast. And along the way, the social-media mogul is letting the world in on his daily exploits, and gaining more fans with every swing and every cliff dive. The Rickie brand is growing, and he is enjoying the process of building it.
“Seeing the amount of kids I’ve impacted … it’s fun to show up at a tournament and see everyone in Puma gear,” Fowler said. “That’s fun, and I look forward to growing that. But in order to grow that, I need to keep playing well, and need to win. It kind of goes hand in hand. I can work at growing it (the brand), but I also need to keep playing well. So I work on balancing that, and I make sure we keep both going the right way.”
Nobilo, for one, is waiting for a player to step up early this season to get jetted toward a monster year. Hey, that guy could be Fowler.
“There’s a certain ‘spine’ about him,” Nobilo said. “I like it.”