LEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Rickie Fowler is impossible to miss on the golf course.
So, too, all these kids showing up at tournaments sporting his look.
Just 22 years old and still looking for his first PGA Tour win, Fowler is well on his way to being golf’s next big thing. Sure, Rory McIlroy and a few other members of the Kiddie Corps have beaten him to a major title. But it’s the guy with the shaggy mop of hair, flat-billed hats and colorful – some might call them tacky – outfits who’s all the rage.
“It’s the way he steps out of the box with his bright colors and a style all his own,” said Brandon Janda, 18, who was at the BMW Championship on Thursday wearing Fowler’s trademark flat-billed hat with the oversized Puma cat and orange-and-white checked shorts from Fowler’s collection. “The game of golf is definitely changing – and in my mind, changing for the better.”
Like McIlroy, Australia’s Jason Day and Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa, Fowler is one of golf’s rising stars. He earned PGA Tour rookie of the year honors last season after being in the top 10 seven times, including runner-up finishes at The Memorial and the Phoenix Open. The first rookie to make a U.S. Ryder Cup team, he birdied his last four holes to keep the Americans in the competition right down to the final match.
But it’s his personality that sets him apart.
Fowler’s first sport was motocross, and he hasn’t lost any of that X-Games edge. Know any golfers who’ve used a motorbike as a golf club? Fowler has.
He walks the course with the swagger of a much older player, but still relishes being a kid. At last year’s PGA Championship, he and Bubba Watson spent their free time tooling around on scooters with the kids in the neighborhood where they were staying.
He delights in turning golf’s conventional style on its head. The British still aren’t sure what to make of him after he showed up at St. Andrews last year in his Sunday best: hat, shirt, pants and shoes in a Day-Glo orange hue usually reserved for traffic cones.
“That’s the ultimate question: What is ‘It?’ Rickie has ‘It,'” said Bob Philion, president of Cobra-Puma Golf. “For sure it’s attitude and a sense of style. Perhaps it’s the motocross background and the Southern California roots. It’s just the way he puts things together. People dig it.”
The kids sure do.
Though there weren’t many youngsters at Cog Hill on Thursday, it being a school day and all, many of those who were bore distinct signs of Fowler’s influence. Taylor Evans, who just turned 14, wore a black Fowler hat and jacket. His 11-year-old brother, Tristan, has been begging his parents for Fowler gear the past two months. Luke Kelly, 13, was decked out in Fowler gear from head almost all the way to his toes – Puma hat, jacket and pants – while his friend Landon Mundell had a black Fowler hat.
When the security guard assigned to Fowler’s group noted that Joe LaPorte had everything Fowler but the shoes, the 17-year-old suggested hopefully that the golfer could give him his.
Bo Van Pelt’s kids are such big fans his oldest son, Trace, dressed as Fowler for Halloween last year. Won a prize for the costume, too.
“I just think it’s that he’s played well, he’s a good person and he’s got a different look,” said Van Pelt, who befriended Fowler when the young golfer was at Oklahoma State. “It’s kind of the perfect storm.”
It’s not only little boys getting caught up in it, either. At the Masters, one little girl standing behind the 18th green proudly wore a Fowler hat and Puma shoes.
“From last year to this year, there’s been a big jump” in the fan base, said Joe Skovron, Fowler’s longtime caddie. “I don’t know if people are getting more familiar with him or if it was the Ryder Cup, but there’s definitely been an increase.”
While Philion didn’t give out numbers, he said Puma Golf has seen “significant” growth this year.
“And it’s substantial,” he said.
Puma has sold “thousands and thousands” of hats in markets near PGA tournament sites, and Philion said they’ve noticed a spike in sales whenever Fowler plays well. When Puma offered a limited edition of Fowler’s all-orange shoe, the 500 pairs available sold out “instantly.”
“He moves the needle,” Philion said. “That’s obvious.”
And it couldn’t come at a better time.
Golf is driven by personalities, and no one captivates people like Tiger Woods. But his career has been derailed by personal problems and a series of injuries, and, as he nears his 36th birthday, there’s no telling when – or if – he’ll return to the form that made his appearance at any tournament a must-see event. Though Phil Mickelson is still wildly popular, golf needs someone else who can move the interest needle – and do it for an extended period of time.
Adults may not share Fowler’s fashion sense – he paired blueberry-colored pants with a lime-green shirt, cap and shoes Thursday – but they’re already fans of the game. It’s the under-20 generation that every sport is so desperate to reach, and Fowler delivers it.
The clothes, the colors, the hair – kids look at Fowler and see themselves.
“It is cool to have the following I do and to have an impact on some young fans,” Fowler said. “I definitely want to be a good role model, someone that kids’ parents allow them to look up to.”
Tony Mundell, for one, appreciates that.
Though he’s a Mickelson fan, Mundell made the trip from Brownsburg, Ind., with his son Landon and Landon’s friend Luke in large part because the teenagers wanted to see Fowler.
“I do think he’s a good role model,” the elder Mundell said. “Given what’s happened with other athletes, I really appreciate that.”
Follow Nancy Armour at http://twitter.com/nrarmour