CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rickie Fowler is savvy enough to know that there were people out there who had started thinking he was more style than substance.
Those brightly-colored clothes, always orange on Sunday, and the trademark flat-brimmed cap, always turned backwards, now, that's what made the man. But try as he might, Fowler had yet to make his mark on the PGA TOUR -- until Sunday, that is.
The 23-year-old played to win at the Wells Fargo Championship, closing with a 69 and then beating D.A. Points and Rory McIlroy, who rose to world No. 1 anyway, with a birdie on the first playoff hole.
Fowler made sure he had the opportunity with a brilliant wedge to a crusty green that could have just as easily veered left into the creek than settled 4 feet, 2 inches from the flagstick. The 18th hole had only surrendered four birdies all day before Fowler and friends played it for the second time.
"I hit the perfect shot at the right time, and I was going for it," Fowler said.
"You wouldn't call the 18th today a birdie hole with that pin," McIlroy said in admiration. "For Rickie to go out and play that hole the way he did, he deserved to win."
Much had been expected of Fowler since he left Oklahoma State after just two years and lost in a playoff in his second start as a pro. Three runner-up finishes had followed before Sunday's breakthrough and Fowler knew he was getting a reputation as someone who couldn't close.
"It's nice to kind of shut them up a little bit," said Fowler, flashing his most devilish Jack-Sparrow-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean grin.
"It's great to see," McIlroy agreed. "He probably has went 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. Hopefully that'll ease the pressure a little bit."
In some ways, Fowler was a victim of his own marketing campaign. The edgy, electric colors, the X-Games persona, the dirt bikes he used to ride, all set Fowler apart in a game known for khakis and polo shirts, and when he didn't immediately deliver, the tongues wagged.
But Fowler wouldn't have had it any other way.
"This is who I am," he said firmly. "... It's been a lot of fun. Obviously I have some great sponsors and a good partnership with Puma, who helped me show who I am on the course. Now we've got the win, so we're good to go."
Actually, he was already there. Go to any PGA TOUR event where Fowler plays and you'll see little kids, some dressed in orange head-to-toe and others, at the very least, wearing the flat-brimmed cap, clamoring for autographs in his gallery. Their fathers want to play like him. Young girls want to date him. Women want to mother him. He ticks different boxes for different people but he definitely stands out in the crowd.
"It's wonderful for the game of golf," Points said. "I'm so happy for Rickie. I'm so happy for golf and the PGA TOUR, 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."
So on Thursday, when Fowler tees off in the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship, the announcer on the first tee will now have more to say than just his name. While Fowler knows he's got a ways to go to catch the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelsons of the world, he also knows Sunday was a start.
|Rickie's many looks|
"It's going to be kind of a relief," Fowler said. "It's been a wait, but I'm definitely still young, and hopefully this opens the door to many more. But it's nice to be mentioned as a PGA TOUR winner. ...
"(But) it's still going to be almost like having zero when someone like Phil is getting announced with 40 and I've got one. I've got some work to do."
For now, though, the Wells Fargo Championship is more than good enough. His mother and his girlfriend were there to congratulate him when the playoff ended, as were his buddies Ben Crane, a fellow "Golf Boy," and Aaron Baddeley. "My dad is probably still jumping around at home," Fowler said, and he knows his long-time swing coach, Barry McDonnell, who died last year, was looking down from above.
The only person missing? "I'm bummed that Bubba wasn't around," said Fowler, who had followed Watson's Masters playoff and celebrated with him on the 10th green. "We weren't exactly inside the ropes but we had a front-row seat, and just to see how he handled himself, the shots he hit, just to feel the energy ... definitely being around there gave me the kind of want to win more."
Following his playoff victory at the Wells Fargo Championship, Rickie Fowler talks to the media.
Given Fowler's age, five months older than McIlroy, and the ending at Quail Hollow the inevitable talk of a rivalry began on Sunday evening. After all, Fowler's first professional win came in Korea last fall by six strokes over the Northern Irishman he happened to beat in Sunday's playoff.
Even his peers felt the urge. "A new number 1 in @McIlroyRory & a new young America(n) @RickieFowlerPGA heading up in the world rankings!! #GolfIsGrowingAroundTheWorld" was Watson's reaction on Twitter. Joe Ogilvie tweeted: "The talent on the (PGA TOUR) today is an order of magnitude greater than at any time in golf's history. Didn't think it would happen this soon."
Of course, there are other young players to consider. PGA champion Keegan Bradley comes to mind. Hunter Mahan, Bill Haas, Webb Simpson, too. But on this Sunday afternoon in North Carolina it was hard to look past Fowler and McIlroy.
"Rory is the top-ranked young player right now, I'm probably the one that sticks out most with color," Fowler said. "Now I'm a PGA TOUR winner. So I've got some credibility."