From Rickie Fowler to Phil Mickelson, here are some lessons from the PGA Tour's West Coast swing

Wednesday March 3rd, 2010
In only six starts in 2010, rookie Rickie Fowler has turned heads by finishing second to Hunter Mahan at the Phoenix Open and securing his Tour card for '11.
Angus Murray

Brace yourselves. The Masters is a mere five weeks away. It hardly seems possible, but, yes, there are only 35 chopping days left for those PGA Tour players who still haven't found their games.

The 2010 season is still fresh and young, yet at the same time the memory of Geoff Ogilvy's victory to kick off the year at SBS Championship has already faded. The past eight weeks have flown by for everyone but Tiger Woods, and now the promise of Augusta and another major-championship season beckons, with or without him.

Last week's Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, won by Hunter Mahan, was the final stop on the Tour's West Coast swing. We're one fifth of the way home, and here's what we've learned so far:

Golf goes on without Tiger. Woods has been mainly relegated to the gossip columns, whether the stories are about his former mistresses signing up for a Howard Stern-hosted beauty pageant, or the Huffington Post pointing out that adultery is still against the law in Florida, or breathless updates on the whereabouts of his private jet.

The Next Big Things are in the house. Ryder Cup alert: Among the six Europeans in the top 10 in the World Ranking, two of them are in their 20s — Martin Kaymer, 25 and eighth-ranked, of Germany, and Rory McIlroy, 20 and ninth, of Northern Ireland. (Once-boyish Sergio García hit 30 in January and has dipped to 13th.) The rest of the world is also rising, with the likes of Ryo Ishikawa, 18, of Japan and Charl Schwartzel, 25, of South Africa turning heads

"We have some great young players, which I think is critical to the long-term success of the game," says Phil Mickelson. "Rory McIlroy is one of the best players I've seen at such a young age, along with Ryo Ishikawa. And Rickie Fowler is just as exciting. The level these guys play at is mind-boggling. I couldn't imagine hitting it as long and straight as they do and having impeccable short games at such a young age.

Dustin Johnson, 25, was anointed as one of America's rising stars when he used his length and deft short game to defend his title at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the third victory of his career. Johnson has a big game, but so does the 21-year-old Fowler, who also has the charisma, style and potential star power that Johnson lacks. Fowler, who finished a shot back at Phoenix, has surprising length despite his size (5'9") and looks like the second coming of Lanny Wadkins with his quick, slashing swing, deadly wedge play and aggressive putting although, surprisingly, Fowler's putter — his best weapon — was cool throughout the West Coast swing.

Fowler, a native of Murrieta, Calif., is no flash in the pan. He made the Walker Cup team while still in high school and broke many of Southern California's significant prep records, and in 2008 he was the college player of the year as a freshman at Oklahoma State. After two years of school, he was ready for the big leagues and has already been in two playoffs — at a Nationwide tour event in Columbus, Ohio, and the PGA Tour's Frys.com in Scottsdale.

Besides a killer instinct, what's most impressive about Fowler is how unfazed he is by his accomplishments, the hype, the courses and, well, everything. As a youngster he competed in dirt-bike competitions, jumping large chunks of real estate in fearless bounds. After that, golf must seem tame. "In junior events and in college, Rickie always stepped it up when he came up to 9 or 18 with a big crowd," says his dad, Rod. "That's the Supercross in him. He doesn't fold under pressure. He responds, and that's what is going to make the difference for him down the road. He played with Phil Mickelson in San Diego, and it didn't faze him. He acted as if he was out there playing with me.

Though family friend Jeremy McGrath, a Supercross legend, predicted that Fowler had the potential to be a top racer, Rickie turned exclusively to golf before high school after a wreck in which he broke his right foot in three places. "There's no comparison between golf and Supercross," Rod says. "For one thing, Dad doesn't have to worry, Is this the day my son gets paralyzed and hauled off in an ambulance? You're going to get hurt in motocross. And if you win a premier-class race, you get $10,000. The risk and reward isn't worth it. I'm so glad he chose golf."

England is the new Australia. We marveled at the Aussie invasion when more than 20 Australians were playing on the Tour a few years ago. Now the pendulum has swung to England. The trend was showcased when Ian Poulter beat Paul Casey in the all-English final of the Accenture Match Play Championship. Lee Westwood, Poulter and Casey hold down the Nos. 4 through 6 spots in the World Ranking, and at 34, Poulter, in particular, is hitting his stride.

Previously best known for brash statements and loud slacks, Poulter followed up the grueling, six-round Match Play with a second-round 63 at TPC Scottsdale that put him into contention. "It's very hard to win such a big tournament and get back up to play well the following week," says Poulter, who finished 24th in Scottsdale. "Obviously, 108 holes is going to take a toll.

The days of Westwood having to carry the flag for England are over. The current tally of players among the top 100 in the World Ranking? England 10, Australia eight. Well done, lads.

The new Phil Mickelson is the old Phil Mickelson. With Tiger out, many people thought Phil would step up, especially after his strong finish last fall, when NBC analyst Johnny Miller predicted that Lefty would most likely be the 2010 player of the year. Not so far. Phil's only move has been dropping from second to third in the World Ranking after Steve Stricker zoomed past him with a victory at the Northern Trust Open.

Things didn't go any better last week when Mickelson returned to Scottsdale, where he reigns supreme due to his amazing play for Arizona State two decades ago. A pair of three-under 68s put him on the edge of contention, but his ball striking went off-line in the third round as he sprayed shots throughout the bag while bogeying three of the first six holes and finishing with a 72. Mickelson closed with a 67

Phoenix was Phil's fourth start in 2010, and he had won his fourth tournament of the season for the past three years. Not this time. His West Coast finishes: 19th (Farmers Insurance), 45th (Northern Trust), tie for eighth (Pebble Beach) and 24th last week. "I guess I'm a bit of a slow starter," Mickelson said. In his defense, he skipped the Match Play for a rescheduled family vacation and this week was heading to Houston for treatment of wife Amy's breast cancer.

The name has changed but the party rages on. Huge crowds and after-hours entertainment make the Phoenix Open unique on Tour and a must-see event on the calendar. Defending champion Kenny Perry reported that when he checked into his hotel last year, the desk clerk mentioned that she was a big fan. "Oh, yes, I love the tournament," she told Perry. "I go every night!"

The par-3 16th hole is surrounded by bleachers and 20,000 fans, who cheer as if they're at a football game. They'll chant, "Tip your cap!" until a player or even a sign-board carrier complies, then applaud. A group of fans near the tee serenades players with college fight songs, chants high school team nicknames — Fowler's: "Night-hawks! Night-hawks!" — and other assorted trivia.

When Scott Piercy arrived at the 16th tee during the third round, the crazies greeted him with, "Jen-na Ja-me-son! Jen-na Ja-me-son!" Piercy later explained that the former porn star attended his high school. "But it's not like she was an old girlfriend," he added, laughing

Saturday's total attendence was estimated at 121,000, about 40,000 fewer than last year. The drop was blamed on a threatening but erroneous weather forecast that prompted Tour officials to move up third-round tee times by an hour. The afternoon turned out to be fine — breezy, high clouds, but no rain until midnight.

Weathermen are frequently wrong. Actually, we knew that already.

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