Rickie Fowler fired a six-under 66 in the first round at Quail Hollow.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
By Damon Hack
Friday, May 04, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Wells Fargo Championship loves to launch young careers.

Anthony Kim, not long out of the University of Oklahoma, blitzed the field here four years ago on the way to his first PGA Tour victory. Two years later it was Rory McIlroy and that audacious 62 for his maiden American win.

Rickie Fowler knows the tournament's history and he knows the opportunity before him, even if he needs three more good days to get there.

"I feel that I'm good enough to win," Fowler said Thursday after a first-round 66 left him one shot out of the lead at Quail Hollow. "I'm not too worried about the talk that goes on about when my first win is coming. It's my main goal. That's what I'm focused on."

In the constellation of young PGA Tour stars -- players like McIlroy, Kim, Keegan Bradley and Jason Day -- Fowler is the only one without a PGA Tour victory.

Fowler has more fans on tour than any of those guys. His pastel Puma hats dominate tournament galleries. He makes commercials (the color orange of the Oklahoma State Cowboys is prevalent). He dominates Twitter. He is golf's Justin Bieber in a backwards hat.

In an earlier generation, no one would worry about a 23-year-old like Fowler being winless on tour. He could have his near misses and move on to the next tournament unburdened.

But when Tiger Woods is the lens through which every young phenom is viewed, the wait for that breakthrough win can be interminable, especially when his peers are hoisting trophies.

"That's got to be tough, especially when he's been so close so many times," said Bradley, who won last year's PGA Championship and lives near Fowler in Jupiter, Fla. "It starts to kind of weigh on you. I think Rickie is just around the corner from a win. He definitely knows how to win; he won a lot as an amateur. He's a great player. I think it's just a matter of time before he wins."

Fowler is quick to remind people that he has won as a professional, beating McIlroy by six strokes in October in the Korea Open. He also starred at the 2010 Ryder Cup, making four straight birdies to halve his singles match against Edoardo Molinari.

Coming off the win in Korea, Fowler appeared poised to light up the Tour in 2012, but that hasn't happened.

"It's definitely been a slow year," Fowler said. "I've been driving the ball really well this year, but I haven't been hitting the ball as close as I would like to. It's getting there, though."

Last Tuesday in New Orleans, Fowler went to the cross-handed putting grip he occasionally used in high school. He finished T10 -- his best finish since the Honda Classic -- and he continued with grip in Charlotte.

"It's kind of helping me get into a little bit better of a setup, a little bit more square," Fowler said.

The change has paid immediate dividends. Fowler posted an eagle and four birdies on a good day of scoring.

Webb Simpson, the Charlotte resident and Quail Hollow member, shot 65, as did Stewart Cink and Ryan Moore. John Senden, D.A. Points, Brian Reed and Monday qualifier Patrick Reed joined Fowler at 66.

"I will say that it was playing a little bit easier than I've seen it," Points said.

Tiger Woods shot 71 in his first tournament round since he finished T40 at the Masters.

Woods, a past champion at Quail Hollow, altered his usual preparation for the event, trading his pre-tournament press conference with the media for a 14-minute video Q&A with his fans on social media.

On Thursday, Woods bogeyed his opening hole and shot 37 on the front before closing with two birdies and a 34 on the back nine. His ball-striking seemed to come and go. He hit 8 of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens and took 29 putts.

"I made too many mistakes on the front nine," he said. "I didn't take care of the par 5s. I've got to, obviously, not make those little mistakes like that tomorrow."

Fowler had no such problems Thursday, and he looked unburdened by questions about gaining his first PGA Tour win. Before the season, he set three goals: win a Tour event, get into the Tour Championship and make the United States Ryder Cup team.

On Sunday, Fowler can knock the first one off his list.


 

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