CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The precocious Rickie Fowler, who left Oklahoma State two years early for some on-the-job training on the PGA TOUR, says he feels like the the big man on campus this week.
And why not? The 24-year-old is back at the Quail Hollow Club to defend his first PGA TOUR title. And what Fowler did last year at the Wells Fargo Championship is akin to a quarterback throwing the winning touchdown pass as time expires or the point guard shooting the clinching free throws.
Fowler deserves to savor the 4-footer he made for birdie on the first hole of sudden death -- just the fifth one made at the difficult 18th all day -- that lifted him past the 2010 champ, Rory McIlroy, and D.A. Points, who, interestingly, is the only one of the three participants with a victory in 2013. Fowler will see his picture on pairings sheets every day, and his autograph will be even more coveted than it normally is.
Come Sunday, though, another player will wrap his hands around the silver loving cup and put his arms into the sleeves of the signature blue jacket. And judging from recent results, that just might be another first-time champ who'll feel like the big man on campus a year from now.
After all, three of the last five winners of the Wells Fargo Championship -- Anthony Kim, McIlroy and Fowler -- have broken through at Quail Hollow. Fowler, who showed so much promise when he lost in a playoff in his second PGA TOUR event as a pro, said felt like he had gotten the proverbial organ-grinder's pet off his back.
"For my own sake and just from some of the questions or, I guess, expectations whether it was from some of the media, fans," Fowler said. "But I felt like I had higher expectations for myself, so I wasn't really worried about what anyone else thought. But definitely nice to get the first one out of the way and get the monkey off the back and move forward."
There are 82 players competing at Quail Hollow this week who would like to find themselves in Fowler's colorful shoes come Sunday. And of those players who have yet to pick up their first TOUR wins, all but 21 would earn an invitation to THE PLAYERS Championship along with the 500 FedExCup points and $1.206 million first prize.
Few have come to North Carolina with the kind of pedigree Fowler, McIlroy and Kim had at the time of their victories, though. Or at such a tender age -- Kim was 21 when he won in 2008 while McIlroy was 22 and Fowler 23.
McIlroy has continued to build on that initial success with six total PGA TOUR victories, including two majors and a four-win campaign last year. He remembers being a "chubby" kid when he overtook Phil Mickelson with a 62 in the final round at Quail Hollow three years ago.
"Look, I wasn't in the same shape as I am now that's for sure," joked McIlroy, who curried even more favor in North Carolina. when he tweeted a picture of himself wearing a Tar Heel on his hat earlier in the week. "... I always look forward to coming back here because I love the golf course; I love the area. I have good memories from 2010, and also I played really well here last year, and I had a good chance to win and was part of a very exciting finish."
Kim -- who interestingly played for Fowler's arch-rival Oklahoma and tied for second in his TOUR debut -- has won three times. But he has spent much of the last two years nursing injuries, most recently sidelined for 11 months after surgery on his left Achilles tendon. He is expected to return to competition this summer.
Fowler, for his part, has learned to adjust to a balky back that first started bothering him at last year's U.S. Open. He hasn't taken medication for it since this year's Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, a tournament where he battled Tiger Woods down the stretch before dunking his approach at the 16th hole on Sunday into the water.
"I had to take a chance at Tiger there on 16 and just unfortunately got one a little heavy," recalled Fowler, who tied for third at Bay Hill. "But definitely felt good in the position there to give him a little bit of a let him know that I was actually around, making a couple putts and wasn't going to back down.
"So I'm looking forward to getting back in that position, and hopefully that's this week where I did it last year."
Fowler, who knows some people think he's "overhyped -- I just dress up and play golf," he said, feels like his victory at Quail Hollow may have given him a little bit more credibility. "No, I'm actually ranked in the top 50 in the world and a decent player," Fowler said with a smile. "It's nice to get the first win just to quiet a few people down, and we'll see if we can get a few more."
Otherwise, though, he jokes that he's still treated like the "little kid out here on TOUR. ... Maybe after I win ten, 15, 20 events, then they might look at me a little differently, but we'll work on the second one for now."
Turning those top-10s this year -- he's had three so far -- into another victory is definitely among his goals this year. In fact, he wants to win multiple times and give himself a chance to win the FedExCup. Quail Hollow, where he shot a 67 in Wednesday's pro-am, would be a good place to start.
"I know I belong out here and I know I can win out here," he said. "I don't ever want to show up at a week of a tournament and not think I'm playing to win. I want to be in contention every week and I want to be fighting for a trophy.
"I've been playing well this year, working on some swing stuff and getting my back healthy, and I feel like I'm heading in the right direction."