Fowler is the sport's ace in the hole

BY foxsports • January 19, 2010

The arrival of Rory McIlroy on the PGA Tour probably will wind up being the most ballyhooed debut since 19-year-old Sergio Garcia showed up at the Masters in 1999.

Of course, the 20-year-old from Northern Ireland is not a true rookie since he played in several events in the United States last year, but this is the first year he has membership on the U.S. Tour.

McIlroy, who makes his 2010 debut this week in the Abu Dhabi Championship in the United Arab Emirates on the European Tour, is the future of golf.

And not only golf writers are saying it.

"We can all see it," Tiger Woods said last year of McIlroy. "The way he hits the golf ball, the way he putts, the way he can chip, get up-and-down. He has the composure. He has all of the components to be the best player in the world, there's no doubt."

Ernie Els and Geoff Ogilvy have said virtually the same.

Interestingly, as Woods has Phil Mickelson, and Arnold Palmer had Jack Nicklaus, McIlroy might have a challenger who as it happens is coming onto the circuit at exactly the same time.

Rickie Fowler, a 21-year-old who left college powerhouse Oklahoma State after his sophomore season, made his debut as a PGA Tour member last week and will tee it up Thursday in the Bob Hope Classic, not far from his home in Murrieta, Calif.

Fowler was so amped at Waialae that he made two double bogeys in his first seven holes to go 6-over-par at that point, and he never recovered while shooting 75-72--147 to miss the cut by six strokes.

Still, he seems to have the stuff to take on McIlroy for years to come.

"I played with (Fowler) in the third round in Scottsdale at the Frys Open (last fall), and you know, he's got a very solid game, hits the ball a good way, has a great short game, makes a lot of putts," Justin Leonard said.

"I mean, that's a great combination, and he's got a lot of confidence right now in the way he's playing, as well he should. And you know, it's fun to see a young player like that come right out of college and do so well. You know, he certainly has the kind of the pedigree to be playing the way he's playing."

Will Mackenzie, who also played alongside Fowler late last season, said: "Maybe this is one of the guys that's going to whip off a couple majors."

Instead of turning pro right after the college season ended in the spring, Fowler waited so he could play in the Walker Cup matches for the second time in September at Merion. He posted a 4-0 record to help the Americans retain the cup and finished with a 7-1 mark in his two appearances.

Then he showed that he was ready to play for pay.

Because he waited so long to turn pro, Fowler gave himself only four tournaments last fall in which to make enough money to join Mickelson, Woods, Leonard, Gary Hallberg, Ryan Moore and Charles Howell III as the only players in the last 30 years to go directly from college golf to the PGA Tour without attending Q-school.

Fowler needed to earn as much or more than the 125th-ranked player on the PGA Tour money list, which turned out to be Jimmy Walker with $662,683, and when the Viking Classic was canceled because of heavy rain his chances were down to three.

He tied for seventh in the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and nearly won the Frys.com Open before losing in a playoff, posting eight consecutive rounds in the 60s.

That meant Fowler needed to finish in the top 10 in the Children's Miracle Network Classic at Walt Disney World to pull it off, but he managed only a tie for 40th and wound up with $571,090 in three tournaments.

It didn't even faze him.

"Well, not what we wanted but it was a fun 5 weeks, 3 tourneys, and 570K," Fowler posted on Twitter after the season finale. "Off to ... the final stage of q school."

Fowler had earned enough money in his three starts to bypass the first two stages of Q-school, and he breezed through the final exams with a 15th-place finish at Palm Beach, Fla.

Then he stayed in the area the following week to rub elbows with some of his new colleagues when he teamed with Chris DiMarco in the Shark Shootout.

He turned 21 on the final day of the event, and the gallery behind the 18th green serenaded him with a rousing version of "Happy Birthday." Not much of a drinker, he said he might celebrate with a glass of wine with his girlfriend, Alexandra Browne, daughter of touring pro Olin Browne.

So far, he's handled the hype with poise well beyond his years.

"It's definitely cool that people are out there talking about me like that," he told reporters last week in Hawaii. "But, you know, I look at it as people are saying it, there's that possibility.

"I'll just go out and keep doing what I've been doing, just keep playing my game. If I put myself in that situation, it would be awesome. I really don't try to worry much about what people are saying or writing about me."

There has been plenty of that for him to try to ignore since he shot 10-under-par 62 at the Southern California Golf Association Golf Course in Murrieta to win the Southern California High School Championship in 2004 as a 14-year-old freshman.

Those who did not yet know his name have been paying attention since he nearly earned a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour in the Frys Open last October before losing a playoff to Troy Matteson.

Earlier in the year, while still an amateur, he nearly bagged his first victory in a professional event when he lost in a playoff to Derek Lamely in the Children's Hospital Invitational on the Nationwide Tour.

"I knew I could come out and play with these guys," said Fowler, a former competitive motocross rider who was the No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in the world for 36 weeks in 2007 and 2008.

"But to come out for two events (on the PGA Tour) and finish tied for seventh and lose in a playoff, you know, I definitely wasn't expecting to do that. But you know ... I'm not doing anything special.

"It's not like my game's all of a sudden elevated to some crazy level or anything."

Perhaps that is because, like McIlory, golf's highest level seems to be only the next one for Fowler.

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