November 2, 2009

Kid Cool

Unfazed by a washout in Mississippi, 20-year-old Rickie Fowler remains focused on his late-season bid for a card

READY, WILLING AND ABLE: Since turning pro after helping lead the U.S. to a Walker Cup victory, Fowler has posted a T-7 and a T-2 in two PGA Tour starts.

READY, WILLING AND ABLE: Since turning pro after helping lead the U.S. to a Walker Cup victory, Fowler has posted a T-7 and a T-2 in two PGA Tour starts.

As he eased into a brown leather chair in the lobby of the Hyatt Place hotel on a rainy night in Madison, Miss., Rickie Fowler looked like any other 20-year-old enthusiastically embracing the idea of casual Friday instead of America's hottest young golfer. He wore blue jeans, an oversize white Puma sweatshirt and a demeanor of bemusement. Long strands of brown hair from his classic mullet protruded from underneath a white baseball cap that he had turned backward.

It was after 10 p.m. CDT, and he nursed a beverage. Diet Coke? Energy shot? Try decaffeinated coffee, and right there the notion of typical evaporated -- not that it hung heavy in the air anyway. When you've banked a half-million dollars in your first two professional starts on the PGA Tour in a late push to earn your card (amounting to a two-minute scoring drive in a game you just joined), then conformity isn't your highest priority.

What does make the list is thrift. The Murrieta, Calif., native gladly explained why he recently moved to neighboring Nevada: no state taxes. As for extravagances, he refrains despite his recent windfall. For instance, he had just sprung for dinner with his mom, Lynn. They chose Applebee's, which was a big deal; the previous two nights they had dined at P.F. Chang's because Fowler had discount coupons.

"I'm just trying to save money and spend it wisely," Fowler says with a grin.

Needless to say, this Fowler looks as if he's going to be just fine pursuing the only job he's ever wanted since he was 7 years old. Parsimony is the heart of golf. To save strokes is to win, earn money and build a career. This formula Fowler already grasps. With youthful exuberance and a mature scoring ability, the former Oklahoma State All-American has swiftly put himself in position to secure exempt privileges on the PGA Tour for 2010.

Fowler had just come off a tie for second at the Frys.com Open in Scottsdale, where he and another talented youngster, Jamie Lovemark, lost in a playoff to Troy Matteson. Prior to that Fowler tied for seventh near his new home in Las Vegas. With $553,700 he would rank 135th on the money list if he were a tour member, and if he equals or surpasses the haul of the 125th player in earnings at the end of the year, he'll get his tour card.

The only thing that could slow Fowler's momentum was to take the clubs out of his hands, and darned if providence didn't do just that, throwing cold water -- lots of it -- on his torrid sprint. With incessant precipitation pounding Annandale GC, officials at the Viking Classic were forced to cancel the penultimate event of the season. Not since the 1996 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am had an event been called off because of unplayable conditions. The tour explored every option, but a legitimate golf competition is impossible when your nearest point of relief from casual water is Memphis. "This was closer to a FEMA disaster site than a golf course," tournament director Randy Watkins said. "I don't think you could play golf within 150 miles of here."

Bummer for central Mississippi. The tournament finally secured its own date after years opposite the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, and all Annandale was good for was stimulating business for local dry cleaners. Next year's event conflicts with the Ryder Cup in Wales, but Watkins said he'll seek to get it moved to a stand-alone slot.

Bummer for the players, too, especially those outside the magic kingdom of the top 125 who have only next week's Children's Miracle Network Classic at Walt Disney World in Orlando to join the small world (after all) of tour membership. Such was Fowler's lot also, but he seemed nonplussed by the inconvenience. "It would have been nice to be playing, but I have the right things going on between the ears, so it doesn't matter to me whenever I can play again," he said. "I will be ready."

Fowler proved capable enough at age 4½ to compete in the local junior golf association's 5-7 age group. His brief but stellar college career is notable for his becoming the first freshman to win the Ben Hogan Award as the nation's top player. He stayed an amateur this summer to represent the U.S. in the Walker Cup at Merion (going 4-0 as America romped), but the month prior he nearly captured the Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational in Columbus, Ohio. His loss to Derek Lamely in a playoff was a bellwether. "I finally put four good rounds together," Fowler said. "That really set me up for this fall."

Peter Uihlein, a teammate at Oklahoma State and in the Walker Cup, sent Fowler a text before the playoff at Grayhawk GC in Arizona. Television showed Fowler whacking balls on the range in rapid-fire succession as the playoff loomed. "Dude, slow down," was the gist of it.

"I see a ball, and I'm going to hit it -- and I won't take much time doing it," said Fowler, who was pleased to learn from tour officials that he averages about 20 seconds to pull the trigger, half of the allotted time. Such expedience, plus his self-reliance (he does not regularly consult a swing instructor) are just two of many reasons he is the game's youngest throwback player.

"He's got a world of potential," said Tom Pernice Jr., who often played with Fowler at Bear Creek GC in Murrieta and serves as a mentor on tour life. "His confidence and his short game are his strong points. He doesn't have much fear, and it's something natural and ingrained. Not everyone can play that way, but it's working for him. It's refreshing to see."

Fowler is far from the first to use the fall schedule as a springboard. Before the Fall Series became the post season to the, uh, Post Season, it served the same purpose, though upper-tier players were more prevalent. Tiger Woods, the ultimate finisher, fall or otherwise, won his first tournament in Las Vegas by outlasting Davis Love III in a playoff. Love was ranked 11th in the world at the time and was one of six players in the top 20 in the field. The highest ranked player at the Frys.com Open was No. 30 Mike Weir. That doesn't diminish what Fowler has accomplished thus far.

"It's great that he put himself in that position so quickly," said Chad Campbell, who was impressed when he played with Fowler in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier last year. "People don't appreciate how hard it is to come in knowing it's make or break in a short window. It takes a high level of golf."

With the Viking Classic washed out, Fowler can use his top-10 from the Frys.com Open to play at Disney (as can Lovemark, who last week opted to play in the first stage of Q school). It's likely a top-10 finish will be enough for Fowler to play on tour next year. If he remains the equivalent of 150th or better in earnings, he's exempt into the Q-school final, where he's guaranteed Nationwide Tour status, and can accept seven sponsor's exemptions on the PGA Tour in 2010. Either way, Fowler's not biting his nails -- literally. It used to be a bad habit, but he trained himself to stop. He's not nervous, either.

"I really have no expectations, but I know what I'm capable of," Fowler said. "I think it all comes down to preparation. From junior golf to college to playing in some majors, I've done a lot to get ready. I've surrounded myself with good players. Not that I won't make mistakes, but I feel like if I'm in the field, I have a chance to win. I think I can deal with any situation."

Saturday afternoon, a few hours after the Viking Classic was canceled, a phone rang in the media center. It was Fowler, who forgot some clothes and two pairs of shoes in his locker. Most guys might have just let them go. Not Fowler. He asked that the items be shipped to Orlando.

young PGA players