Part of my job is to survey the competitive ranks and identify the next big thing. That was easy when Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy came along. With other players, you have to wait and see. I've been watching Rickie Fowler for five years, and the verdict is in: He's the best thing going in American golf.
Am I swayed by his run of four top-5 finishes in majors in 2014? You bet I am! But my fondness for Fowler goes way beyond that. And you can ignore the fact that he's only won a single PGA Tour event in his five full seasons. The wins will come. There's too much talent and too many intangibles on his side. Rickie has that Clint Eastwood, cool-without-trying vibe—even when cloaked head-to-spikes in orange. He signs autographs. After he finishes his round, he hangs out and interacts with fans, just like Phil Mickelson. And I admire his attitude. He never complains; Rickie takes rub-of-the-green bad bounces and 360-degree lip-outs with a smile as wide as his flat-brim caps. You can't teach that.
Then there's that swing. Like players from my era, Rickie can work the ball in so many directions it makes your head spin. Unlike a lot of his peers, he's no one-trick pony. Rickie can follow a high fade with a low draw and not break a sweat. And he's spent just a few seasons working with Butch Harmon, perhaps the best coach of the modern era. Rickie's swing is still maturing before our eyes. That formerly flat backswing has been replaced by a more orthodox, seasoned move. The result? A swing that's still an ultra-fast blur of titanium—but that's ultra-reliable now, too. An absolute thing of beauty. I can't wait to see Rickie's ballstriking when Butch's changes fully take hold.
Rickie is the best thing going in American golf.
And I'm not the only one who has faith in Fowler. When an overmatched U.S. team needed every possible point just to hang with the Euros at this year's Ryder Cup, Tom Watson sent Rickie out against McIlroy in three out of five matches. Watson took heat for many captaining decisions but not for asking Fowler to battle the World No. 1. That speaks volumes about Rickie. He's on the cusp of something big.
How big? This issue calls Rickie the Player of Next Year (see p. 74). I couldn't agree more. I've been around the game for more than a half-century. Talent often fails to fulfill its potential, but that won't happen with Fowler. Bust out your best orange duds, folks—it's gonna be a heckuva ride.
JOHNNY KNOWS BEST
Here are my three broadcasting tips for Greg Norman.
1 HAVE FUN. Greg, you're the new color analyst for Fox's golf telecasts. It's a job millions would kill for. The moment it becomes work, quit.
2 STAY TRUE. I've said some things that have rankled plenty of fans, and so will you. Let them get over it. Your job is to be you.
3 BE QUIET. Your words are important but not that important. If you think that what you have to say is more meaningful than the shot unfolding on the screen, you're on the wrong side of the lens. I'm sorry, my friend -- you're in the backseat now. That's okay -- let someone else drive.