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 rankspartly 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 sensewell, 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 eventcall it his "Hello, World" momentFowler 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 lifea tricky 30-yard bunker blast at 15, a ghastly approach over water from thick rough and a sidehill lie at 18Fowler 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."