Rickie Fowler honors biggest fan with inspired start in Phoenix

Allan Henry/USA TODAY Sports

Rickie Fowler honors biggest fan with inspired start in Phoenix

PGA Tour

Rickie Fowler honors biggest fan with inspired start in Phoenix

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When it comes to figuring out who Griffin Connell’s favorite golfer was, all one would need to do is check the 7-year-old’s Twitter account, @GriffinConnell.

From Jan. 31, 2017, just before the start of the Waste Management Phoenix Open:

My favorite week of the year! @WMPhoenixOpen!! Can’t wait to follow my buddies, @RickieFowler and @skovy14. Good luck guys!!

From June 17, 2017, during the U.S. Open at Erin Hills:

What a day! Catching #Cars3 this morning, then going 2 tune & watch my buddies @RickieFowler & @skovy14. Good luck guys!! #usopengolf2017

From Dec. 3, 2017, after Rickie Fowler, undoubtedly Connell’s favorite golfer on the planet, won the Hero World Challenge:

Congrats @RickieFowler and @skovy14 on the great round and W @TGRLiveEvents — watched every birdie from home!!! See you soon!

That would be the final tweet Connell would send mentioning Fowler and his caddie Joe Skovron. Griffin James Connell, who was diagnosed at birth with a rare airway disorder, died Jan. 23 in Phoenix, a week before his favorite week of the year was set to begin at TPC Scottsdale.

“He was just a huge fan of the game,” Fowler said. “I was lucky to have him. … I claim him as being my No. 1 fan, so he had a special place with me and Joe.”

On Thursday at the Phoenix Open, the same tournament where five years ago Fowler first met Connell and his family, Fowler turned in an opening round that surely would’ve made Connell proud. Wearing a pin given by Connell’s father, Jim, on his hat, right next to the Puma logo, Fowler shot 5-under 66 to grab a share of the first-round lead with Billy Horschel and Bryson DeChambeau.

Fowler jumpstarted his round with an eagle at the par-5 15th hole after he hit his second shot from 232 yards to 2 feet. He added birdies at Nos. 17, 18, 4 and 8. He had birdie putts of 8, 28, 43 and 15 feet on those holes, respectively.

The only blemish came at the Coliseum-like par-3 16th as Fowler found the front-right greenside bunker and then failed to get up and down from a semi-plugged lie. And since it was still early, he could hear more than boos from the crowd.

“I was a little disappointed in some of the stuff that was said,” Fowler said. “… The normal boos for missing a green, that’s fine, but leave the heckling to a minimum.”

One person who never booed or heckled Fowler was Connell. Fowler remembers Phoenix Opens in the past when he would hit a bad a shot and he’d look over at Connell, who would be just outside the ropes with his family, including his four siblings. (The Connell family is expected to attend this year’s event at some point.)

“He was just pumped and excited to be out there watching us,” Fowler said. “And it just puts things into perspective. He could care less if I played well or bad, he was always supporting us.”

Said Jim Connell: “Griff, he only ever saw Rickie and Joe as his buddies and that was the coolest thing is that he was just such a presence and for a kid who he never spoke a word, with his condition, but he communicated beautifully and never met anybody he didn’t consider a friend.”

Skovron, who lives in Scottsdale, said he visited Griffin at Connell’s home in nearby Paradise Valley last year and had meant to make another visit to see him last month after Griffin had returned from an operation in Michigan. Unfortunately, Skovron didn’t get the chance. Jim Connell emailed Skovron with the news.

“That’s one thing that really bothers me; I was meaning to go see him before this and then I assumed I’d see him here,” Skovron said. “When I got that news last week, that was pretty disappointing. I just wasn’t expecting it. Your heart just breaks for the family, for him; just everything that they’ve been through and for him to fight so hard, and then for that to happen.”

Griffin Connell served as an inspiration to many – and will continue to do so. Despite countless surgeries, he was known for his lovable personality and unwavering determination. He loved watching movies, playing video games and sports, especially football, bowling and golf.

Especially golf. Jim and Griffin used to watch golf in the hospital all the time, and when Griffin was home he could often be found in the backyard on the family’s practice green, chipping and putting. He was very aware of the rules, too, making sure whoever was caddieing for him pulled the flag properly or didn’t step in his putting line.

When the Connells would bring Griffin to the Phoenix Open, he used to try and quiet the fans at No. 16. He knew golf fans were supposed to be quiet. He also would bring different brands of hats to the tournament and when a player would walk by, he would put on the hat of whichever brand sponsored that player. Smart kid.

His favorite hat, though, was a white Puma hat with orange lettering – a hat that Amy Connell will wear at this year’s Phoenix Open. On the brim was an autograph from Griffin’s best friend, Fowler.

“He lived an amazingly full life in such a short time,” read Connell’s obituary. “… Griffin never met anyone who he didn’t consider a friend and left a lasting impression on everyone.”

Said Skovron: “He was always so full of life. Certain kids, you know, they just make an impact on you, and Griffin certainly made an impact on Rick and I.”

That impact ran both ways.

“Everything that Rickie and Joe have done for Griff through the years is just phenomenal,” Jim Connell said. “And I don’t think it’s a coincidence Rickie’s playing so well this week, either. Griffin, he’s not here with us, but we know he’s watching from above and in a wonderful place.”

As Fowler wrote in his Instagram post on Thursday morning: “Griffin you were and always will be a legend in my mind!! You will always be a part of my team!”

And if Fowler wins Sunday in Scottsdale, his No. 1 fan will always be part of the victory.

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