Fowler grows up at tough Quail Hollow

Rivalries elevate sports.

Magic had Bird, Jack had Arnie, Federer has Nadal, Ronaldo has Messi, and their personal duels penetrate the collective consciousness and make us care more.

Golf has been waiting for its two hottest young stars, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, to create a trans-Atlantic rivalry, but there’s been a none-too-small problem.

While McIlroy has won a major and reached No. 1 in the world — a throne he reclaimed again from Luke Donald on Sunday with a tie for second in the Wells Fargo Championship — Fowler, as he freely acknowledged, is of the two “probably the one that sticks out most with color.”

That’s because, until now, all he has had to hang his flat-brimmed hat on has been his Johnny Depp looks and an ostentatious fashion sense befitting a California kid who grew up skateboarding and racing dirt bikes.

To his critics, Fowler has been Generation Y’s successor to Andre Agassi, circa 1990, who infamously posed in psuedo-punk neon clothes and declared that image is everything.

The truth, as always, is more complex, and those within the golf fraternity long have known that Fowler is more than just hype and marketing.

“It was just a matter of time before he won,” McIlroy said.

The 23-year-old — who is five months older than McIlroy — is tremendously talented.

But his flaw is that he likes to play fast and loose, to fire at flags and not think too much about the consequences of his aggression.

The patience it takes to win on the PGA Tour hasn’t been one of his virtues.

Until now.

Rickie Fowler grew up on a steamy Sunday afternoon in the cauldron that was Quail Hollow, an exacting golf course that doesn’t produce fluke champions, to emerge from a tense three-man playoff and claim his first-ever PGA Tour win in his 67th start.

It was a victory born in many places — starting with Friday’s second round when Fowler turned what could’ve been a 76 into an even-par round to stay in the hunt — but it will be most remembered for how it finally was delivered.

With a breathtaking birdie.

Facing McIlroy, who won his first PGA Tour event here three years ago, and veteran D.A. Points in a playoff, Fowler took dead aim with a gap wedge at a pin so diabolical that the 18th had surrendered only four birdies all day.

“I was going for it,” said Fowler, who has twice before lost in playoffs.

“Playing against those two guys, I know that they’re going to make birdie at some point, and I don’t want to sit there and try and make pars and stay in it.”

He knew, however, that the slightest miscue meant disaster.

“If I don’t hit it perfectly, then I land short and I’m in the creek,” he said.

But he did hit it perfectly, to 4 feet, from where he made the winning putt, bringing such relief to a young man who’s felt the pressure and heard the whispers.

“The shot he hit was spectacular,” Points said.

Points, like many of his peers, has nothing but good things to say about Fowler. It’s a measure of his popularity that he was engulfed with congratulations from fellow pros.

“I’m so happy for Rickie,” Points said, “Because he is, honest to goodness, a good kid, and I really like being around him. He’s got tremendous talent. He deserves all the pub, and he certainly deserves this win.”

McIlroy was, understandably, dejected — he’d made two sloppy bogeys on the final nine, one of them with a wedge in his hands — but tipped his hat to Fowler, who also beat him in Korea late last year.

“It’s great to see,” he said.

“He probably has gone through a little bit of sort of scrutiny and a lot of pressure trying to get that first win, but now that win is out of the way, (and) hopefully that’ll ease the pressure.”

Fowler acknowledged hearing the naysayers throughout his three years as a professional.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of people that have doubted (me) or said you’ll never win. So it’s nice to kind of shut them up a little bit,” he said.

Fowler isn’t cocky, but he knows what he can do.

“I knew I could be in contention, and I knew I could win out here; it was just putting it together,” he said.

“I definitely knew I was good enough.”

And what now of that budding rivalry?

“We’ve always had a great camaraderie, been good buddies,” he said of McIlroy. “I definitely respect him as a player, and I feel like he respects me as well.

“And I look forward to playing against him and hopefully having plenty more tournaments like this where we’re battling back and forth.”

And in that wish, he’s not alone.