In the minutes before a playoff in front of their parents, peers, golf nuts, wide-eyed kids and the giddy Quail Hollow Club membership, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy shared a moment on the practice green. Friendly rivals since the 2007 Walker Cup, the young lions approached one another and exchanged a soul handshake so hearty it brought wide grins to them both.
They couldn't have been happier to be in the other's company and about to showcase their mutually audacious skills. Or, to borrow from the hip-hop genre of their generation, game recognize game. The Roman numeral clock above the clubhouse read 5:49 p.m. The PGA Tour was about to enter new territory.
Aaron Baddeley corralled his family and headed to the 18th green. Rosie and Gerry McIlroy found a spot on a hillside behind the green. "It's good for you guys to write about," Gerry said, aware that a story with dueling 23-year-old phenoms moves the needle.
The Wells Fargo Championship was bearing witness to a moment that had the markings of something special—and permanent. Fowler and McIlroy looked transcendent, moving their golf balls this way and that, carrying themselves like champions.
"I got to play in the Tiger Woods era," said Robert Garrigus, taking it all in, "and now it looks as if I'm going to be playing in the Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy era."
In a three-man playoff that included D.A. Points, the 2011 Pebble Beach winner, Fowler easily had the most at stake. Fowler's mom, Lynn, knew it. "After all the years of this, I've learned to stay pretty calm," she said, "but [in] a playoff you feel as if you're going to throw up every time they swing the club."
It has been nearly three years since Fowler turned pro, flashing the talent that pushed him to leave Oklahoma State after only two years. In his second Tour event as a pro, in 2009, he lost in a playoff to Troy Matteson at the Frys.com Open. In 2010 he was runner-up in Phoenix (where he took heat for laying up on the 15th) and at the Memorial, thanks to a final-round 73 that left him three back.
Even as other youngsters hoisted trophies—Jason Day at the '10 Nelson, Keegan Bradley at the '11 Nelson and PGA, McIlroy around the world—Fowler's Q rating rose. He signed endorsement deals for clubs and clothes, filmed a golf music video that went viral and became the closest thing golf has to the Biebs.
Some of the hype was of Fowler's own doing. He has worn loud clothes since high school. He rides dirt bikes. He is comfortable in a flat-brimmed hat turned backward. But the longer he went without a victory, the more critics wondered if he could close the deal.
"This is who I am," Fowler said on Sunday. "I don't want to be anyone who I'm not and don't want to be marketed in any way that doesn't represent me. I have some great sponsors and a good partnership with Puma, who helped show who I am on the course."
Last October the dam finally broke. At the OneAsia tour's Korea Open, he won for the first time as a pro, defeating McIlroy by six shots.
At Quail Hollow, Fowler drew a crowd—dozens of kids in Puma attire, antsy teenage girls and one boy with a painted-on Fowler mustache. It was a familiar scene on today's PGA Tour, but Fowler finally added some husk to the proceedings. In the playoff he belted a 326-yard drive, feathered a gap wedge from 133 yards to four feet and rolled in the birdie for his first Tour victory, in his 72nd start. His celebration was as understated as his clothes are flashy. If he didn't exactly look as if he had won before, he looked as if he'd be doing so for a long time.
Said Fowler's caddie, Joe Skovron, "You look at the guys that were in the field this week—Tiger, [Lee] Westwood, [Phil] Mickelson, Rory—it just makes it that much better."
Woods, the 2007 Wells Fargo champion, wasn't around for the weekend, missing the cut by a shot despite receiving a free (and favorable) drop on the par-5 5th hole last Friday when his badly pulled approach disappeared into the gallery. The finish continued a trend of unpredictability for Woods. His last four starts: a WD (Doral), a win (Arnold Palmer), a 40th (Masters) and an MC (Wells Fargo).
"If I get over the ball and I feel uncomfortable, I hit it great," he said. "I get out there and I want to feel comfortable and I follow my old [swing patterns] and hit it awful."
Pressed on why he's still uncomfortable almost two years after he started working with Sean Foley, Woods said the swing changes he made under Butch Harmon and Hank Haney took just as long. "It takes hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of golf balls, but eventually it comes around," Woods said.
That sent Twitter's golf community into a tizzy. "bull----," tweeted Steve Elkington.
Even Haney, no doubt growing more comfortable in his second career as an author, jumped into the fray. "Check the record on this 2 yr timetable because that is not what the record says," he tweeted. "Maybe referring to comfort but not results. Won 9 times in 1st 2 years, 66% in top 10 for the 1st 2 yrs."
To write off Woods completely is folly, of course. But his sporadic play is rightly setting off alarms, especially with McIlroy living on the leader board these days.
That is where Fowler expects to be, and he has the game to do it. Consider this: So good was his ball striking over the four days that he won despite finishing only 40th in the field in putting.
Fowler admitted to some satisfaction in silencing his doubters, but his larger emotion was joy. In his victory speech on the 18th green he said all the right things and thanked the appropriate people. "Rickie, we can't hear you!" someone shouted from deep in the gallery.
It didn't matter. Fowler had already made a loud statement. And he's certain to be seen and heard from again.
BONUS SECTION | GOLF.COM
Rickie Fowler jumped from 25th to seventh in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings and most likely secured a spot on the team that will tee it up in September at Medinah, even if it's as a captain's pick. As a Ryder Cup rookie in 2010, Fowler finished 0-1-2.
Rory McIlory regained No. 1 in the World Ranking for the third time this year. The top spot has changed hands five times in 2012, the most shuffling in a five-month span in the 25-year history of the ranking. The most change-offs in a year occurred in 1997, when Ernie Els, Tom Lehman, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods took turns as numero uno.
In the two years since his maiden PGA Tour win, at Quail Hollow, McIlroy has played 49 times around the world and has three victories and 29 top 10s. In seven starts this year he has a win, three seconds, a third and has been out of the top five only once (40th at the Masters).
FOR THE PLAYERS
"I always start with the sound [when picking clubs]. Sound gives a lot of feedback on how a club feels."
RBZ Tour (10.5°)
Ozik TP7 (XX flex)
2. FAIRWAY METALS
RBZ (15° and 18°)
Code 8 (X flex)
SHAFT: True Temper
Project X 6.0
RBZ Milled (five-iron through PW)
SHAFTS: True Temper
Project X 7.0
XFT (54°, 58°, 60°)
SHAFTS: True Temper
Project X 7.0
Tour 360 ATV
Photograph by CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA
BREAKTHROUGH Fowler, who led the field in total driving and ball striking, joined McIlroy and Anthony Kim in making the Wells Fargo his first PGA Tour victory.
FRED VUICH (BAG, BALL)
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA (VILLEGAS)
COURTESY OF ADIDAS (SHOE)