The Game of Risk


LEMONT, Ill. – Rickie Fowler is a gamble.

He’s as much a captain's risk as he is a captain's pick.

There’s no way around it.

He’s a PGA Tour rookie who has never won a professional event.
Rickie Fowler
Rickie Fowler is the first U.S. captain's pick never to have won a PGA Tour event. (Getty Images)
You can be sure European fans are well aware that no American’s ever taken that resume to the first tee of the Ryder Cup in what is billed as golf’s most intense event.

That makes Fowler the boldest American captain’s pick in the history of the matches.

He seems destined to meet one of two spectacular extremes Oct. 1-3 at Celtic Manor in Wales. He seems destined to blossom or melt down.

A rookie on that stage? Is there any middle ground when you make your debut in the seventh game of the World Series? Because that’s what the Ryder Cup is like. It isn’t anything like golf’s major championships, where confidence and pressure build to a Sunday back-nine rush. The Ryder Cup is searing heat before the first shot is hit. It’s about winning and losing from the first hole. It’s about triumph and failure every hole. It’s about a player feeling as if he is lifting his team and country with every shot ... or letting them down. It's the kind of pressure that made American Mark Calcavecchia weep after he melted down and began hyperventilating at Kiawah Island in 1991.

“People tell you that you will be as nervous as you have ever been on the first tee of the Ryder Cup, and you say, `Nah.’ ... but you are that nervous,” American J.B. Holmes said of his Ryder Cup debut two years ago at Valhalla.

And that was a home game for Holmes.

The nature of the Ryder Cup stage is what makes Fowler a glorious gamble and a wondrous risk.

So is the fact that so many of his American teammates don’t see his selection as a particularly large gamble or risk at all.

American Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin polled his eight automatic qualifiers before he made his captain’s picks. He wanted to know who they liked. He even polled his first three captain’s picks, asking Tiger Woods, Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink who they liked before he named Fowler. Pavin wouldn’t have chosen Fowler if there were reservations within his newly formed team.

“I’m not surprised Rickie was a captain’s pick,” said Matt Kuchar, one of eight Americans who made the team on points. “I think he was a consensus pick. I think we all see Rickie as a guy who isn’t afraid of anything, as a 20-year-old with a whole lot of talent who’s got a bit of a swagger and plays with the feeling he’s bulletproof.”

Johnson also pointed to Fowler’s attitude when asked what he liked about the selection.

“His youth, the way he goes about his business, could be a good thing for the team,” Johnson said.

Fowler’s confidence and passion figure to collide dramatically with all that Ryder Cup history and pressure. It’s what makes Fowler the most compelling American storyline going into this Ryder Cup, more compelling than how Woods will fare.

Is Fowler being pushed out onto the this stage too early? Or is he just what this American team needs? Pavin had to be asking himself those questions before pulling the trigger on the former All-American from Oklahoma State.

Fowler was the blinding flash and spark Tuesday in the otherwise sedate unveiling of Pavin’s four picks.

Pavin didn’t take the safe path selecting Fowler in an announcement fittingly made at the New York Stock Exchange. Pavin made a giant investment in the future of American golf. He went all in on his belief Fowler will return a giant dividend as a can’t-miss blue-chip stock.

On a day when Woods was made a captain’s pick for the first time, Fowler practically upstaged that news. Fowler was all the buzz on the driving range at the BMW Championship.

You could hear the excitement Fowler generated in Sean Foley’s voice in the parking lot behind the practice range at Cog Hill. You could hear it after Foley hopped out of a car and spotted young European sensation Rory McIlroy.

Foley, who knows something about being a hot topic as Woods’ new swing coach, slapped McIlroy in a hearty embrace and immediately asked him what he suspects McIlroy will be asked a lot of over the next three weeks.  

“Are we going to see Rickie take on Rory in the Ryder Cup?” Foley asked McIlroy. “I think everyone wants to know that.”

In other words, are we going to see the future of American golf take on the future of European golf?

You can argue McIlroy’s time has already arrived with his breakthrough on American soil in his victory at Quail Hollow this year and his European Tour breakthrough victory a year ago.

Fowler, who’s shown spectacular potential, has yet to prove he’s a winner at all in the professional ranks. In 30 PGA Tour starts, though, he’s finished among the top-10 nearly a quarter of the time, with three second-place finishes, one of those in a sudden-death playoff loss.

Still, Fowler’s vast potential trumps his record in this selection.

McIlroy huddled with Fowler Tuesday afternoon near the equipment trucks behind the practice range at Cog Hill. McIlroy knows Fowler’s passion for national team events. Fowler was 4-0 helping the Americans beat Great Britian/Ireland in the Walker Cup matches last year. He’s 7-1 overall in Walker Cup play. Three years ago, Fowler teamed with Billy Horschel to defeat McIlroy and Jonny Caldwell, 2 and 1, in an alternate-shot match in Northern Ireland.

“Rickie’s a really good competitor,” McIlroy said. “He’s really good under pressure. He holes a lot of putts, and he isn’t a guy who is going to let down. He just keeps going. That’s a very good thing in the Ryder Cup.”

Zach Johnson got a close-up look at Fowler’s game under pressure at the British Open at St. Andrews this year. They were paired together in the third round. Fowler shot 71 to Johnson’s 74.

“You hear all the hype, but you never know until you see the player in person,” said Damon Green, Johnson’s caddie. “I watched Rickie, and my reaction was, 'Wow.’ He played fearlessly. I think he was bogey free that day. He drove the ball really well, just a very solid player, very impressive. I could see why there was so much hype.”

If Fowler doesn’t win the BMW Championship this week or the Tour Championship in two weeks, his most important victories as a pro will come at the Ryder Cup in three weeks. Perhaps his most devastating losses, too.

That’s what makes him such a compelling gamble and risk.