Rivalry or not, Rickie and Rory provide a glimpse into golf's future

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Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler have faced off on the PGA TOUR since 2010, when they were paired together at The Barclays.
May 09, 2012
Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The first time Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler met in earnest was at the 2007 Walker Cup.

"I knew he was kind of the stud of their team," Fowler said. "I played alternate shot against him; Billy Horschel and I, versus him and Johnny Caldwell. We came out on top, which was nice."

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Since then, it's McIlroy who has been on top with multiple wins, including a major, and a spot atop the Official World Golf Ranking.

But with Fowler's victory over McIlroy last Sunday in Charlotte, we were provided a pretty nice glimpse through the window of golf's future -- even if this never develops into a rivalry in its truest sense.

For one, there has to be, at least on some level, a certain amount of competitive abhorrence toward one another. These two genuinely like each other (they even voted for each other in the PGA TOUR's Rookie of the Year balloting a couple of years ago with Fowler edging out McIlroy).

For another, the ever-shifting golf landscape includes too many participants at the top to make this a two-horse race. Luke Donald, Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, Webb Simpson, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson all seemingly have their best golf ahead of them.

When Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were at the height of their careers, it was the Lakers or Celtics or both in the NBA Finals just about every year with each superstar checking the other's box score to see how he performed the night before.

This will not be Bird vs. Magic, or even Phil vs. Tiger, and therein lays the admonition.

Nonetheless, the two will be inexorably linked given their similarity in age -- Fowler edges McIlroy by five months -- and incredible popularity, which is growing in the same exponential ways their games seem to be.

Speaking of that, the scoreboard reads Rory six (three of which have come on the PGA TOUR), Rickie two (his win at Quail Hollow being the first on TOUR).

The first is always the hardest, though, and those who questioned if Fowler was ever going to win (never mind that he's just 23 years old and has played barely three full seasons) are now wondering just how quickly the next might come.

There again lies some caution.

McIlroy's first professional victory came in Dubai in 2009 and he had to wait more than a year for his next. Since then, of course, McIlroy has won a major and put himself in contention just about every time he tees it up.

Fowler, by the way, won last fall in Korea before his maiden victory on TOUR.

Rickie Fowler interview

Rickie Fowler meets with the media and talks about his first PGA TOUR victory and what he likes about THE PLAYERS.

Rory McIlroy interview

Rory McIlroy meets with the media and talks about his finish at the Wells Fargo Championship and what he's changed in his bag for THE PLAYERS.

"Dubai was a big relief for me because it was out of the way," McIlroy said. "It took me a while to get my next win at Quail Hollow after that, and since then I've won a little more regularly. As long as you just keep putting yourself in that position, sooner or later you're going to get the hang of it."

Which is exactly what Fowler did, losing in a playoff at Grayhawk before contending in Phoenix and at Memorial the following year.

Last season, Fowler again knocked on the door of victory only to have his efforts go excruciatingly unanswered with a runner-up finish at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.

"I think Rickie probably had it a little more than I did," McIlroy said. "He's not the sort of guy that he'll let it affect him. He just gets on with his business and plays and really enjoys it and really is himself out there. He was always talented enough to win; it was just a matter of going out and doing it."

And now that he has, Fowler is part of the same club as McIlroy, whom he beat in that playoff last week.

"Hopefully it's not the first time that we'll go head-to-head like that," Mcilroy said.

While Fowler is smart enough to not get caught up in the Rickie vs. Rory show, he does admit he's kept an eye on his old Walker Cup rival.

"Rory is a guy that I like to follow, and obviously I like watching him play," Fowler said. "In a way, you don't want to be outdone. It kind of motivates you to push yourself and do better.

"I know he wants to beat me just as bad as I want to beat him. But I think that both he and I would have to kind of run away and play really well just for it to be a rivalry between the two of us. There are a lot of really good young players right now, and to count any one of them out of a rivalry would be somewhat unfair to them."

We can still hope, though.

"He's fun to watch," Fowler continued. "I definitely respect the way he plays, and I look forward to playing against him for a long time."

So do we.

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