Fowler-McIlroy showdown highlights Tour's health


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Knock, knock. (Who’s there?) Orange. (Orange who?) Orange you glad to see Rickie Fowler finally win?

For the 318,000-plus Twitter followers, countless little Rickies and thousands more adoring fans, Sunday’s Wells Fargo finale was Orange Dreamsicle sweet.

It’s taken Fowler three years since turning professional to notch his first PGA Tour victory, but with all the cynics and the critics, you’d think it had been an eternity.

Fowler finally “shut (critics) up a little bit” with his playoff win over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points, solidifying the street cred so many failed to give him.

Hoggard: Tour brethren celebrate Fowler's win

Sunday at Quail Hollow it was two 23-year-olds who took center stage – with apologies to 35-year-old Points – and it was exactly the type of pedal-to-the-metal finish we would expect out of Fowler.

The emotions that flooded Fowler were as varied and as vibrant as ROYGBIV when he squared off against McIlroy, five months his junior in age yet already his senior in accomplishments. But Fowler kept his composure, knocked his approach to 4 feet at the first extra hole and when he rolled in the birdie, his hard work culminated, his dreams materialized.

After witnessing Rickie’s reign at Quail Hollow, it’s tempting to paint the PGA Tour with ‘new era in golf’ storylines and undertones, to preach about how great the future will be.

Truth is, the present is pretty remarkable.

A wide spectrum of storylines has fueled the season, from the redemption of Kyle Stanley to the romanticism of Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson’s conviction to Tiger Woods’ conundrum, the fortitude of Jason Dufner to the fickleness of the world’s top ranking.

That No. 1 spot is currently held by McIlroy, a consolation prize to his playoff loss.

While Fowler is definitely the flavor of the moment, McIlroy has established himself – regardless of what the Official World Golf Ranking says on a weekly basis – as the game’s best player.

McIlroy’s runner-up showing at Wells Fargo was his fourth top-3 finish in five PGA Tour starts this season, which includes a victory at the Honda Classic. His game and mentality are maturing and he’s settling into a rhythmic pace.

He now heads to TPC Sawgrass, where he opted out a year ago, citing scheduling conflicts and his limited number of starts as a non-member of the Tour.

This year, he enters the Tour’s flagship event not only as a card-carrier, but a new man in many respects and, essentially, the Tour’s next golden boy.

Meanwhile, Woods, the man who once was – or still is, depending on your point of view – the Tour’s golden boy comes into the week looking anything but polished. His year has included a win at Bay Hill, his worst finish at the Masters as a professional and a missed cut at Wells Fargo.

No, writers aren’t contractually obligated to mention Woods in every column. His inclusion in this piece is further highlight the Tour’s health. With or without Woods, at his best or a struggling mess, the Tour has thrived in 2012.

Now, as we come off our orange rush and look ahead to The Players, we cannot ignore that one question: Is this a new era in golf?

Is this the beginning of an era in which Woods and Mickelson should no longer be considered the weekly favorites? Or have we already embarked on that journey and we’re just now starting to realize where we are?

It may be time to steer our faith and following in a different direction. In the past we’ve bet the house on Sunday red. Are we now putting it all on orange?

That’s not to suggest that with one Tour victory, Rickie is suddenly the new Tiger. That would be like comparing apples to, well, oranges. The suggestion is that times are changing and the change is good.

The PGA Tour’s present is a vibrant as Fowler’s wears. To continue down this pleasant path in the long term, there must be youthful leaders, those with talent, charisma and victories.

Two such men were on display Sunday. One was declared No. 1, the other crowned champion.