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Original Issue

The Case for ... Rickie Fowler

IT'S EASY TO get the wrong idea about Rickie Fowler. With his garish outfits, B-boy lid and DiCaprioesque looks, it's natural to assume that he is some kind of pretty boy—all style and very little substance. That Fowler, 25, has won only once in five seasons on the PGA Tour while dominating the commercial breaks is often seen as a case in point. But Fowler should be judged not by the color of his pants but the content of his character. He is a humble, soft-spoken, God-fearing young man who always says and does the right thing. He's among the Tour leaders in autographs dispensed and always good fun on social media. More to the point, Fowler is busting his tail to achieve his potential as a player, and his recent results indicate that he's on the verge of a major breakthrough.

A motocross rider as a kid, Fowler arrived on Tour with a refreshingly nonconformist approach to his golf. He eschewed any talk of swing mechanics and only occasionally consulted with his boyhood swing coach, Barry McDonnell, of tiny Murrieta, Calif. Fowler's feel for the game was evident when he tied for fifth at the 2011 British Open, only his second sojourn to the linksland. McDonnell had died two months earlier, and in the aftermath Fowler attempted to dig the secrets out of the dirt on his own. It wasn't until the start of 2014 that he enlisted another set of eyes by seeking out swing guru Butch Harmon, the tough-talking Vietnam vet who took both Greg Norman and Tiger Woods to No. 1 in the World Ranking. As a symbolic showing of his seriousness, Fowler cut off his flowing locks.

While some players spend years laboring to make swing changes—the initials of one prominent example are T.W.—it took Fowler only three months to master a new approach that has cut down on the moving parts in his whipsaw action. The result has been a top five finish at each of the year's first three majors. He tied for fifth at Augusta and backed that up by tying for second at the U.S. Open, though he still finished eight shots behind Martin Kaymer. And Fowler's run at last month's British Open solidified his new standing as a big-game hunter. Starting the final round six strokes off the lead, he played with heart and panache, chasing Rory McIlroy to the end but ultimately falling two strokes short. Fowler's flawless closing 67 pushed his score to 15 under, which would have won all but four of the Opens played since World War II.

Fowler is contending consistently thanks to an all-around game with no weaknesses. He ranks 35th on Tour in driving distance at 296.6 yards a pop, despite weighing in at 5' 9" and 150 pounds, and he has married precision to his power; on approaches of 125 to 150 yards, he's ninth in proximity to the hole (20.3 feet). Fowler's putting remains streaky, but in the crucial distance of five to 10 feet, he ranks 15th, making 60.6%. With a game that travels anywhere, he's a good bet at this week's PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club, a lush track in sultry Louisville, just as he will be a key performer for the U.S. at next month's Ryder Cup, on the auld sod of chilly Scotland. (He made an audacious Cup debut in 2010, winning four of the final six holes in his singles match against Edoardo Molinari to steal a crucial half point.) In an age when image is everything, Fowler offers a pleasing counterpoint. Instead of sitting back and counting his endorsement dollars, he has gone all in trying to close the gap on his history-making contemporary McIlroy, whom Fowler beat in a playoff at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship, his only Tour win. In what passes for a moment of bluster from him, Fowler said, "I definitely have some catching up to do. But I am getting closer."

With a game that travels well, he's a good bet at this week's PGA at Valhalla.