Rickie Fowler finds new young BFF in wake of Hurricane Harvey

Rickie Fowler and Justin Gilbert hang out during the 2019 Farmers Insurance Open. (PGA Tour) PGA Tour

Rickie Fowler finds new young BFF in wake of Hurricane Harvey

PGA Tour

Rickie Fowler finds new young BFF in wake of Hurricane Harvey

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SAN DIEGO – Justin Gilbert will have a lot of stories to tell when he returns to Houston.

The 6-year-old was brimming with excitement all week at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he participated in golf clinics and got inside the ropes for Wednesday’s pro-am. He’s not a shy kid, so when he saw Tiger Woods he wished him good luck.

“Thanks, little buddy,” Woods replied.

Justin proudly shows off the precise location of Woods’ signature on his hat. Asked if the two are friends now, Justin isn’t shy with his answer either.

“No. I’m with Rickie,” Justin says.

That would be Rickie Fowler, who first forged a bond with the Gilbert family last March after their Houston home was severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The family turned out to be the perfect fit for Fowler and Farmers Insurance, which led a volunteer effort to rebuild the home and sent Fowler to help paint and pitch in the week of the 2018 Houston Open.

Daniel and Yessica Gilbert adopted Justin shortly after he was born with a congenital heart defect, which has led to multiple surgeries. They’ve been settled into their new home since May and stayed in touch with Fowler via text. Justin took a liking to him immediately, and he was ecstatic when he received a video message from Fowler in the fall.

“It was Rickie Fowler inviting us out here to Torrey Pines to come watch him play for one week in San Diego,” Daniel said. “I was showing (Justin) the video and he was just going crazy, telling everybody.”

As soon as the family arrived, Justin was a big deal.

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Rickie Fowler hangs with Justin Gilbert and Justin’s parents Daniel and Yessica. (PGA Tour)

His photo appeared in the official program, which he was asked to autograph on several occasions. He also got to walk with Fowler during the Wednesday pro-am, with Fowler handing the putter over to the youngster for a few strokes on the greens.

“It’s been a lot of fun to get to spend time with all three of them,” Fowler said. “Justin’s a handful of energy. We were running down 17 during the pro-am. I think he’s still somewhat oblivious to where he’s at and what’s going on in a way. He just thinks he’s hanging out with one of his buddies. So I think Daniel and Yessica had to bring him back a little bit, cause I think they were a little worried he might just run out to me on the first tee or something, which is great. It’s cool to see them having a great time out here.”

The Gilberts didn’t expect Harvey to hit as hard as it did in their area and hunkered down at Daniel’s mother’s home. Their home was destroyed and they couldn’t afford to rebuild, but a team of more than 200 volunteers has allowed them to settle back into a relatively normal routine.
Justin still gets scared every time it rains, especially during storms.

“If there’s thunder he automatically says, ‘It’s gonna flood, Mommy,’” Yessica said.

But he lights up whenever he spots Fowler, immediately pointing him out if he sees him on television. He likes to tell the kids back home that he and Fowler are best friends.

“He’s letting Justin be in spots where other kids look at him like, ‘Oh, I want to be in that position,’” Daniel said. “The hospitality of it has just been amazing. Just looking at Justin’s face being so happy about it, that’s what it means to us.”

Yessica has about 500 pictures on her phone from the week. Daniel says the photos don’t do the whole experience justice and knows Justin is going to talk about it nonstop when they’re back home.

“It’s been cool seeing how well Justin’s been doing back in their house, because that was obviously devastating when the hurricane came through,” Fowler said. “Hopefully it’s something we’ll continue with the friendships and relationships. You never know if golf may have something to do with Justin’s life down the road, whether it’s something he becomes really good at or just something he can use the rest of his life. Being a part of introducing that to him has been cool, but it’s great to see him out here doing well.”

The Gilberts didn’t know who Fowler was before he arrived last spring. He spent a half day painting and working on the house and played with Justin for an hour, whacking whiffle balls around the yard. They caught up with him again later that week at the Houston Open, and they were thrilled at the chance to reunite in Southern California.

Thanks to Fowler and others, they have a place to call home again. And they’ll return with new memories after an unforgettable week that went well beyond golf.

“Every time we talk to him, we just feel like we’re not talking to a professional golfer,” Daniel said. “We’re talking to Rickie Fowler. He’s just a friend.”

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