Rickie Fowler will get a hard look from the PGA Tour’s old guard when he tees it up this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Veterans who have endured the test of time aren’t easily impressed.
The hype that can usher in the game’s bright new faces gives them pause. They have watched so many rookies projected to be the game’s next superstars flame out over the years. They’ve learned to trust their own probing eyes.
That’s why Fowler’s performance at the Shark Shootout in Naples, Fla., last month meant so much.
He passed the toughest of inspections there.
He played alongside Mark Calcavecchia and Chris DiMarco and won their respect with his old-school shot making.
By the time he signed his scorecard after that first round, he was practically one of them, a throwback they’re confident would have thrived making his way through yesteryear with persimmon woods and balata balls.
That was the Shark Shootout upset nobody read about.
Who would have thought an up-and-coming rookie whose dashing looks are being compared with Leonardo DiCaprio could be a kindred spirit to a rumpled old warrior like Calcavecchia?
Calcavecchia, 49, earned his way onto the PGA Tour back when Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino were still winning. He’s a 13-time PGA Tour winner who showed his shot-making prowess winning the British Open in 1989.
Fowler’s arsenal of shots impressed this member of the old guard.
It’s what Calcavecchia likes about Fowler’s game. It’s also Fowler’s real value to the PGA Tour.
Yes, at 21, with his long, golden locks, that funky Puma’s painters cap and his grasp of fashion, Fowler connects powerfully with today’s youngest fans. He makes the game seem cool. He’s got an X-Games kind of appeal with a derring-do style of play developed in a motocross background.
While that might win him a youthful following, it wins him nothing in a PGA Tour event.
It’s all about performance between the ropes, the ability to execute shots under pressure.
Calcavecchia and DiMarco will tell you they were won over in that department. They’ll tell you the kid’s got the tools to be special. While it doesn’t guarantee Fowler stardom, they like his chances.
“I’m glad I only have to look at him for another six months,” said Calcavecchia, who heads off for the Champions Tour in June. “I don’t think there’s anybody on the Champions Tour who can hit it by me 50 yards like Rickie did. For a little guy, he can bomb it, but he’s not a full-throttle guy who smashes every shot. He knows how to hit every shot, cuts and draws, how to take a lot off a shot. For 21 years old, to have every shot in the bag is pretty good. I think he’s going to be great.”
It took less than an hour into the first round of the Shark Shootout for Fowler to impress Calcavecchia.
Just 153 yards out in the fairway at Tiburon Golf Club’s fourth hole, Fowler faced a delicate approach into a brisk crossing wind.
It was a little test that made Calcavecchia straighten up and pay attention, the kind of shot that required imagination and finesse, skills most rookies haven’t fully developed in this smash-and-chase era.
The pin was tough to get at, tucked front left with water guarding the entire left side of the green. With the wind blowing in from the right, the water was in play for anything too aggressive.
“I’m thinking he might hit an 8-iron in there,” Calcavecchia said. “I’m right next to him, and I’m thinking I’m going to hit a 7-iron.”
Fowler surprised Calcavecchia, plucking a 6-iron out of his bag. He carved a pretty little three-quarter shot that obediently held its line against the wind before diving back to earth and checking to a stop 10 feet from the pin.
“It was pretty impressive,” Calcavecchia said. “He really took a lot off it. Obviously, he’s got control of what he’s doing.”
Fowler takes pride in his ability to move the ball left and right and control trajectory.
“I was just trying to control the distance along with the spin and flight,” Fowler said. “The wind didn’t touch it much. I controlled the spin to where the ball wasn’t going to do much in the air or on the ground.
“That was kind of a feel shot, trying to control the flight. I feel like there aren’t many young guys coming out that can hit a lot of shots now when they need to.”
An All-American at Oklahoma State, Fowler was a freshman when he won the Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s best player. He turned pro last fall after helping the Americans win the Walker Cup following his sophomore season. He made headlines quickly, losing the Frys.com Open in a playoff in just his second PGA Tour start as a pro and went on to secure his PGA Tour card at Q-School last month.
DiMarco, 41, a three-time PGA Tour winner, was paired as Fowler’s partner in the Shark Shootout’s two-man team format. They finished seventh.
“The kid’s unbelievable,” DiMarco said. “He’s going to be good for many, many, many years.
“He’s a great ballstriker, hits the ball really far and is mature beyond his years. That’s the main thing. I remember when I was his age, and there was no way I was ready for this. The way he handles himself, I’ve only seen that a few times. Tiger was like that, Justin Leonard was like that, guys that were ready at that age. We maybe see one or two of these guys every 10 years.”
Rickie Yutaka Fowler is actually the full name. His middle name is Japanese. It’s his maternal grandfather’s name.
“I’m a quarter Japanese,” Fowler says.
It was his grandfather, Taka, who first put a golf club in his hands when he was 3. A few years later, he was following Taka to the Murrietta Valley Golf Range in his hometown in Murrietta, Calif. That’s where Fowler met Barry McDonnell, the only swing coach he’s ever had. McDonnell would challenge Fowler to learn to move the ball left and right and up and down as his game developed.
“He never used a video camera,” Fowler said. “I was always a feel player and still am.”
Fowler doesn’t pound balls at the range, he crafts shots. That’s how McDonnell got him to fall in love with the game. They would pretend they were drawing drives around the bend at the 13th hole at Augusta National or hitting shots under the wind at St. Andrews. They were always creating, controlling ball flight. Their work was never about robotically honing straight-arrow shots. That instilled a little bit of Seve Ballesteros in Fowler in that he relishes the great escape shots.
“Rickie almost feeds off trying to hit tough shots,” says Fowler’s father, Rod.
Part of that is the now well-told story of the motocross breeding in Fowler. Rod won the Baja 1,000 on a four-wheeler in 1986. He raced hard and rode tough. He has broken his ribs and punctured his lungs more than once in crashes. He had Rickie riding a dirt bike when Rickie was just 3. The entire family rides, including Rickie’s mother, Lynn, and younger sister, Taylor. Lynn won a 24-hour mountain bike race as part of a five-woman team in Idyllwild, Calif., eight years ago.
Rod likes how his son sees golf courses different than most golfers. He says Rickie can see race tracks, mountain roads and desert dune runs in an 18-hole layout. He sees the challenge in certain shots the way he used to see jumps on a track.
“He’s called me over to the ropes in the middle of a golf tournament and said, `Dad, doesn’t this hole remind you of that run at Ocotillo Wells,’” Rod said.
Rod won’t be alone watching to see if his son can put together a thrilling run to start his rookie year. Rickie? He’s taking it one jump – strike that – one shot at a time.
“I know there are a lot of people out there expecting a lot of me, or not expecting a lot,” he said of the hype. “With the pressure, I felt like I've dealt with it pretty well throughout the years, junior, amateur, college. So, really, my own expectations are just to get the most that I can out of every week, because you can be on top of the game one week and then you're struggling the next. I expect myself to play well, obviously, whether that be winning a few events, or maybe some top-10s here and there. I’m just really looking forward to getting a full year out here and trying to go without having too many expectations, have fun, play stress free golf.”
The fun, he hopes, begins in Hawaii.