What it takes to be a PGA Tour nice guy
Rickie Fowler is no stranger to what has become a tradition at Golf Digest—our ranking of the 30 nicest guys on the PGA Tour. In our first edition, in 2013, Fowler finished third, and two years ago the California native was ranked fifth when Jordan Spieth took the top honor. Spieth credited several mentors for helping him navigate the pro ranks at a young age, including our inaugural winner, Steve Stricker. Spieth also singled out Fowler for praise, saying the five-time PGA Tour winner is “unbelievably generous with his time and has more energy than I can ever hope to have.”
Apparently, widespread agreement abounds, because Fowler, 30, heads our 2019 survey, edging U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and Spieth, respectively. “There are a bunch of good guys on tour,” Fowler says. “I’m just trying to treat people the way my parents taught me to. It’s cool to have my peers view me this way. Very cool, very humbling.”
Players, caddies, media members, golf executives, locker-room attendants and tournament volunteers, among others, participated in our voting. Candidates must be younger than 50, so good-guy seniors like Stricker, Jay Haas, Nick Price and Jeff Sluman have to be content with honorable mentions. We weren’t quite as specific in our criteria this time, knowing people have their own opinions of what constitutes a genuinely nice guy, though one trait seemed common: the propensity for treating people of all walks with equal respect.
After Woodland, who made our list for the first time, and Spieth, came Rory McIlroy, the PGA Tour Player of the Year (which seems less of a surprise in light of his lofty ranking here), and then Webb Simpson. Sixth was Adam Scott, who also has been near the top in all three of our rankings.
This year’s voting was particularly competitive—and for good reason.
“Depending on your definition of it, there are 20 or 30 really high-class good guys,” says former CBS golf broadcaster Peter Kostis, who credits the new generation of players for how they treat others and how they support one another.
“I know some of the old guard take offense to the way guys pull for their opponents, like Rickie and Jordan waiting to congratulate Justin Thomas at the  PGA,” Kostis adds. “It’s a phenomenon unique to this generation. And you know what? It’s honest. They respect each other, and they’re friends. In the old days, it used to be kill or be killed.”
“I’ve been around long enough to remember when it was pretty easy to pick out the really good guys,” says veteran tour player Ryan Armour. “Anymore, it’s probably a whole lot easier to pick out the guys that are not all that nice. This crop of younger players, they’re just different. People are more content in who they are. When I got on tour, everyone was chasing Tiger so hard and in their own little worlds. I think the majority of the nice guys aren’t defined by their golf. Maybe that makes a difference.”
A sampling of remarks underscores this.
Of Spieth, one observer says, “If I had to entrust someone on tour with my kids in my will, he’d be one of those people.” Steve John, tournament director of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, says, “It’s obvious that Spieth was raised right. He’s the kind of guy you would want your daughter to bring home.”
Armour is a Justin Thomas fan because “he’ll ask how you’re doing and then stops and listens to the answer. He genuinely is interested in what you have to say.” Nathan Grube, tournament director at the Travelers Championship, is impressed by Thomas’ thoughtfulness, too. “He will send thank-you notes and gifts. The first time he did it, his rookie year, I thought, OK, that was nice. But every year he does it.”
We found this comment from veteran caddie Matt Minister a powerful statement on Adam Scott: “Of the big-time players out there, Adam is probably at the top. The guys who are the very best and are the most popular, it’s hard for them to be legitimately nice all the time. It doesn’t really serve them well to do that. And that’s not to say that they aren’t nice, but how would they get anything done if they couldn’t remain a little bit aloof? Adam has had a long, great career while remaining a very good person.”
Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington echoes those sentiments: “The nicest guy on tour relative to his ability to play golf is Adam Scott. He’s a world-beater.”
Mark Rolfing of NBC Sports summed up best why McIlroy rates: “Last year at Kapalua, where you have a good chance to see how players are treating the restaurant folks, the assistant pros, the cart-barn guys, the volunteers and housekeeping, etc., overwhelmingly they said they had never seen a guy like Rory and his family. They were as nice to everybody regardless of who they were. He’s very simply a regular guy and a genuinely nice person.”
Woodland, too, is known as a regular guy, but his reputation undoubtedly was enhanced by his enthusiastic acceptance and support of Special Olympian Amy Bockerstette as they played the famed par-3 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale during a practice round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Woodland later said it was “by far the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced.”
“He treats everyone the same, not better or worse based on who they are,” says Harold Varner III, who got his share of mentions to finish seventh on our list. “We had dinner in Phoenix after he did the thing with Amy, the same night, and to see how emotional Gary was, that was pretty cool. Some guys you can tell when it’s an act. But you could tell he was genuine about the whole thing. It didn’t just stop with the events of that day.”
Now, name the golfer who joined Woodland and Bockerstette during their prearranged exhibition, and though he mostly stayed in the background, he, too, was seen offering Amy encouragement. He has been a perennial on our list, and, in fact, tied Fowler for third in our initial rankings in 2013. It was Matt Kuchar, who, after his somewhat checkered 2019, slipped to 25th this time.
Kuchar’s good-guy image might have absorbed a hit after a few incidents this year in which he came off looking uncharitable. Months after winning in Mexico, he succumbed to public pressure and paid a healthy bonus to the local caddie who at first received an agreed-upon fee of $5,000 out of Kuchar’s winnings of $1.3 million. There also was a rules dustup with Sergio Garcia at the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship in March. Garcia was in the wrong for whacking an inches-long putt before Kuchar could concede it, but Kuchar’s churlish disposition amid the ensuing disagreement invited criticism. Then there was his interminable embedded-ball argument, which he lost, at the Memorial Tournament.
Juxtaposed to those episodes is Kuchar’s longstanding reputation as a solid professional, someone who has exhibited a willingness to connect with fans, sponsors and players and talk to the media. Hard to figure.
Less of a mystery is Fowler’s appeal as he polled high across the spectrum. A sampling of what people told us:
• Sky Sports broadcaster and former PGA champion Rich Beem: “I met a young man this year from the Shriners Hospitals and brought him inside the ropes with me at Quail Hollow. After the round, Rickie went out of his way to hang out with this kid after a long day of already being on the golf course.”
• Sport psychologist Gio Valiante: “He’s a really likable guy, and he’s just as nice. There’s no phoniness about him.”
• Caddie Brandon Antus: “I’ve seen Rickie under any situation, a child, a woman, a 70-year-old man … it doesn’t matter; he treats everybody the same way, and he’s very patient with everyone.”
• Agent Bud Martin: “Rickie Fowler is a superstar player and a superstar kid.”
• Marci Doyle, chief operating officer, Arnold Palmer Invitational: “Rickie Fowler has some really cool character traits like Mr. Palmer. He has that friendly, calm and quiet demeanor that is all about kindness and connecting with people.”
If you draw comparisons to The King, you’re probably doing something right.