Rickie Fowler Plays Golf Like He Rides a Motorcycle: Fast and Fearlessly
This story originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of GOLF Magazine.
Rickie Fowler could model for Hollister. He has sparkling hazel-green eyes; olive skin inherited from his half-Japanese, half-Navajo mother; and a shaggy bowl of brown hair that flops stylishly over his ears. He's been likened to Leonardo DiCaprio (by the Golf Channel) and Zac Efron (by strangers on the street), though Fowler is quick to point out that he sported his now-trademark 'do long before the High School Musical star hit the scene.
On a cool October evening on the Vegas Strip, Fowler is, in fact, modeling. He's still a couple of days from making his professional debut on the PGA Tour, at Justin Timberlake's star-studded event, but the marketing of Rickie Inc. is already well underway: TV spots, radio interviews, a website (rickie-fowler.com), Facebook and Twitter pages (2,728 fans and 1,866 followers, respectively), YouTube clips, even his own T-shirt (emblazoned with the youthful slogan "Rickie is my homeboy"). Today, it's a magazine shoot, and Fowler is posing in front of a shopping mall 10 miles from his two-bedroom condo at TPC Summerlin. The sleek towers of the Wynn loom overhead, traffic whizzes up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, and tourists and shoppers wander by, a few stopping for a closer look. If the golfer is self-conscious, it doesn't show. He alternately smiles and looks tough and gives meaningful stares like a seasoned cover boy. The scene attracts a buxom thirtysomething blond, who introduces herself to Fowler's handlers as Haley. She's in a green tank top, and her mother is with her, digital camera in hand.
"Is he a salesperson?" Haley asks, gazing across the plaza at Fowler, who's clad head to toe in gear from his new sponsor, Puma: painter's cap, white trousers, slip-on sneakers. "Or is he someone famous?"
Fowler's agent of three months, Sam MacNaughton, grins. "Someone famous," he says. "He's Rickie Fowler, professional golfer." Haley decides to hang around for a memento. When Fowler strolls over, she slips an arm around him, arches her back, and smiles.
Fowler isn't famous. Not yet, anyway. But in the four months since he turned pro, the Southern Californian with a swing built at a public driving range and a boldness born from jumping motorcycles has sent a jolt through golf's elite ranks—partly because of his splashy credentials (he won the Hogan Award, golf's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, as a freshman at Oklahoma State, and went 7-1 in two Walker Cups); partly because of his flashy style, aggressive shotmaking and unusual pace of play (swift); but mostly because he launched his pro career with two eye-opening finishes (a T7 in Vegas and a T2 in Scottsdale). A few weeks later, at Q School in Palm Beach, Fla., Fowler continued to dazzle, finishing T15 to become the Tour's youngest card-carrying member.
It's heady if daunting stuff, because with prodigious success (just ask Ricky Barnes, Casey Wittenberg, and a host of other one-time wunderkinds who stalled) inevitably come inflated expectations. Fowler, 21, can't simply have a reasonable 2010; he'll be expected to flourish. "Yeah, it's tough," he says, talking over Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" in a Vegas sushi restaurant. "You always think about failing in a sense—well, not always. But there's always that chance, so I'm going to do everything I can on and off the course to prepare myself the best I can for each and every tournament.
"Whether I've won no tournaments in five years or I've won 20 times, I want people to know who I am," he continues. "I want guys out there looking at the leaderboard and saying, 'Oh, man, Fowler's up there again.'"
So far, so good. A week after tying for seventh at J.T.'s event—call it his "Hello, World" moment—Fowler battled, with remarkable haste, for the Sunday lead at the Frys.com Open in Scottsdale. When faced with some of the biggest shots of his young life—a tricky 30-yard bunker blast at 15, a ghastly approach over water from thick rough and a sidehill lie at 18—Fowler played as though he were late for his curfew. (He eventually lost in a three-way playoff.) "You wouldn't say he's a grinder," says Mike McGraw, Fowler's college coach. "I'm hoping that if he's fortunate enough to be successful on the Tour that more players will come out there and realize you don't have to take all day long to hit a golf shot."
They're already taking note. "Rickie plays golf, and that's what I like," says Hall of Famer Lanny Wadkins, who followed Fowler at OSU (Wadkins' son Travis plays at Wake Forest). "In other words, he's not checking, 'Is my swing on the right plane here?' and this and that. He's just club, hole, ball, hit it, and that's it." In other words, Lanny 2.0. That's how Fowler has always approached the game, since he first started playing tournaments with a 46-inch driver as a 4-year-old. By age 7, he was burning through buckets at Murrieta Valley Golf Range, first with his grandfather, Taka Tanaka, and later under the watch of Barry McDonnell, an old-school, low-tech pro who preaches feel over form. "Barry taught me so that if I go to a tournament and play bad one day, I can go out the next day and be ready to go," Fowler says. "I'm able to figure it out on my own."
If Fowler's speedy play and ability to self-correct are atypical on Tour, his crisp ballstriking and creativity blend right in. "He hits all his irons on a rope, but he's the best long-iron player I've seen," says Peter Uihlein, who played junior golf with Fowler before joining him at Oklahoma State. "I've never seen anybody hit more 3- and 4-irons inside 10 feet." That has resulted in birdies, and lots of them. During a 12-week stretch as a junior at Murrieta Valley High, about an hour north of San Diego, Fowler shot a pair of 62s and a 61, and one of those rounds came on a day when he forgot his lob wedge at home. More recently Fowler showcased his imagination at a Nationwide event in Ohio when he disregarded his caddie's advice to punch out and instead hit a Mickelsonian 7-iron from the base of one tree, through a gap in another, to 20 feet from the hole. "The shot's on YouTube," he says, "but seeing it on there doesn't do it justice."
It's a decade or two premature to draw any serious comparisons between Fowler and Mickelson, even if Fowler does happen to be tight with Mickelson's brother, Tim (they played the SoCal amateur circuit together), and once played a casual match with Lefty himself. But their styles are undeniably similar. McGraw saw it in Fowler the first time he flew to California to scout him. "He was a real daredevil," McGraw says. Not that that should have come as any great surprise. Rickie is, after all, Rod Fowler's kid.
Rod Fowler didn't know golf, but he sure knew gearboxes. Through much of the 1980s, he made a living driving trucks and competitively racing off-road vehicles—dirt bikes, four-wheelers, that sort of thing. In 1986, he and two teammates won the "quad" class in the grueling Baja 1000. Rickie was born two years later and quickly acquired his dad's need for speed. It was a way of life. Every month or so Rod packed up the family—wife, Lynn, Rickie and his younger sister Taylor—in an R.V. and drove out to remote desert outposts to ride bikes and dune buggies with friends. Weekends on the Monterey Peninsula they were not. "I raced a little bit, but I was more into play-riding and being in the air," Rickie says. By the time he was 12, he was gunning his Suzuki RM125 off 50-foot jumps.
Like expert skiers seeking extreme terrain, Rod and Co. would sometimes venture into areas restricted to off-roading, which Rickie loved—and hated. "He was so worried about the cops coming and getting in trouble," Rod says, laughing. "that's how he's always been. He thinks things through before he does them." Rickie's dueling passions came to a head during his freshman year in high school. Three weeks before tryouts for the golf team, he was tooling around on a small, 50cc bike when he nearly plowed into a family friend who had his taken his toddler son out for a joyride. "I was coming over a jump, and they were coming the other way," Rickie recalls. "So I had to bail and ditch the bike so I wouldn't hit them. I broke my foot in three spots and blew out my left knee."
It was Rickie's most serious spill yet, and a reality check: If he was going to commit himself to golf, he'd need to ditch the bike for good. "It was a bummer on one hand because I had lost my riding partner," says Rod, who today runs his own trucking company. "Everybody said that Rickie was like my shadow. Everything I did, he was right behind me doing the same thing when we were riding in the desert." Of course there was an upside, too. "In motocross, you go out there thinking, 'Is this the night my kid gets paralyzed?'" Rod says. "With golf, you don't have that fear."
Four years, one state title and dozens of accolades later, Fowler had earned a full ride to golf powerhouse Oklahoma State. He had previously committed to UCLA so that he and Philip Francis, his close friend and a top-ranked junior golfer from Scottsdale, could fulfill their dream of attending college together. Fowler says he reneged on the Bruins because he felt he had rushed his decision, but Rod explains it differently: "When news of them going to UCLA hit the press, Rickie kind of felt like he got back-seated to Philip, like Rickie was No. 2. And he didn't want to be No. 2. He felt, 'I need to be my own person. I don't want to be in Philip's shadow.' That's why he pulled out."
If Fowler has thrived on all the attention, he has by all accounts remained extraordinarily humble, too. During his junior year at Murrieta Valley High he dated a girl for almost a month before she knew he played golf. In college, after shooting a 63 at Olympia Fields outside Chicago (which tied the competitive course record there), Fowler was asked how it felt to be mentioned in the same breath as Vijay Singh, who had set the mark at the 2003 U.S. Open. "Well," Fowler demurred, "I don't think the course was set up as hard as it was for the Open." "He never mentions how he played," says Lenny Damian, one of Fowler's closest friends in Murrieta. "I'll be like, 'Dude, Rick, you played awesome today,' and he'll be like, 'Yeah, I played all right.'"
A checked ego will serve Fowler well as he finds his way on Tour, which isn't to say that he's not already at ease with the big boys. At Timberlake's tournament, Fowler worked the scene like an old pro, playing a practice round with 50-year-old Tommy Armour III and laughing it up on the range with fellow OSU Cowboy Hunter Mahan. "I don't really feel intimidated at all," Fowler says. "I feel like I can hang with these guys." And with their daughters, too, apparently. Fowler is currently dating Alexandra Browne, an 18-year-old freshman at Pepperdine University and the daughter of three-time Tour winner Olin Browne. (Okay, so Olin set them up.)
Despite his youth and Sin City zip code, Fowler isn't likely to experience some of the same growing pains as, say, Anthony Kim, who admitted to showing up hungover to Tour events during his rookie season. "I never really got into the whole party/drinking scene," says Fowler, who left Oklahoma State in May after his sophomore year. "You'll find me getting off the golf course, getting dinner and going home and watching a movie." If he has a vice, it's...shopping. Fowler loves accessories—hats, wallets, sunglasses—and friends say he has difficulty leaving a mall empty-handed. During a recent shopping spree in New York City, Fowler hit the Fendi store on Fifth Avenue and spotted a purse that he thought the mother of his buddy Lenny Damian might like. "He took a picture of it and sent me a photo text," Damian says laughing. "Only Rickie."
Back in Vegas, the photo shoot shifts to the mall's rooftop. En-route to the set Fowler ducks into the hat store Lids, where he browses the towering racks for nearly 10 minutes. He finally settles on an all-white Boston Red Sox cap but passes on a pair of orange-rimmed shades. On his way to the register, he turns to a trusted advisor to ask how he should pay. "Mom," he says, "credit or cash?"
It's an odd query, given that Fowler banked nearly $700,000 in PGA Tour winnings in '09, but also a small reminder that he's still maturing, still in need of mom and dad's advice—financial and otherwise. That's worth remembering as Fowler acclimates to life on Tour, where the pressure, especially for so-called Next Big Things, never relents. "They're just kids," McGraw, the OSU coach, says of up-and-comers like Fowler, "and you don't know how they're going to handle it. A lot of grown men in their 30s don't handle hype very well."
Still, Fowler remains undaunted, which may prove to be his most valuable asset. "It's like doing a big jump," he says. "You can't sit there and think about it for too long or else you're going to start thinking about all the bad things that could happen. You just go do it. And that's what I've done with golf—step up, look at the shot, get the number, and go."