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Rickie Fowler ends amateur career with Walker Cup win

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USGAARDMORE, Pa. – Rickie Fowler waved a large American flag in triumph Sunday at historic Merion Golf Club. Then he draped it over his shoulders and hurried off to hoist the Walker Cup with his teammates.

He couldn’t have asked for a better finish to a stellar amateur career. This was the perfect ending.

With a 2-and-1 victory against Great Britain & Ireland’s Matt Haines, Fowler capped a 4-0 record in the two-day event. He resisted the temptation to turn pro this summer because he wanted to feel this moment again. He wanted to help the Americans win the Walker Cup again. He was 3-1 helping take home the cup two years ago in Northern Ireland.

“This is the whole reason I stuck around,” Fowler said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in golf.”

Fowler’s mother, Lynn, shadowed her son in the celebration with her camera, snapping photos in rapid-fire fashion. His father, Rod, shadowed mom. His grandfather, Taka, who first put a golf club in Rickie’s hands when the boy was just 3, followed in tow with the rest of the family.

“I’m happy for Rickie,” Lynn said. “This is just confirmation of why he was so comfortable with his decision to wait for this event before turning professional.”

Fowler, 20, won’t wait long to begin his pro career in earnest. He will play as a pro on a sponsor’s exemption at this week’s Albertsons Boise Open in Idaho on the Nationwide Tour. Two weeks after that, he’s playing on another sponsor’s exemption at the Soboba Classic, a Nationwide Tour event not far from his family’s home in Murrieta, Calif. Two weeks after that, he’ll tee it up for the first time as a pro in a PGA Tour event, playing on yet another sponsor’s invitation at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

“I’ll hop a plane tomorrow morning to Boise and get things started,” Fowler said.

Fowler was one of the nation’s best collegians at Oklahoma State. He was the first freshman to win the Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate player. As a sophomore last season, he finished third as an individual in the NCAA Division I Championship. He showed just how ready he is to turn pro when he nearly won the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational as an amateur last month in Columbus, Ohio. Fowler lost in a playoff to Derek Lamely.

Watching his grandson savor his final moments as an amateur Sunday at Merion, Taka Tanaka shook his head. Who knew what lay ahead when he first began taking Rickie to the Murrieta Valley Golf Range when he was 3?

“Kids all have dreams, but, honestly, I never imagined it would lead to this,” Taka said.

Neither did the kids in Murrieta who thought Rickie was destined to become a motocross racer like his father. Rod Fowler, 47, won the Baha 1000 on a four-wheeler in 1986.

“Big moment in my racing career,” Rod said while watching his son play Merion on Sunday.

Rod had Rickie riding a dirt bike when he was 3 and racing a few years later. Rickie, though, made a choice when he was 14. He made it after crashing on a motocross course three weeks before he was scheduled to try out for the Murrieta Valley High School golf team his freshman year. He broke three bones in his right foot.

“It was a freak accident,” said Rod, who owns a trucking company. “He had to throw the bike to avoid hitting a boy on the course.”

Rickie ended up making the golf team as a freshman anyway, but he told his father it was time to get rid of his motorcycle.

“I knew then he was pretty serious about golf,” Rod said.

Whatever lured Rickie to motocross remained part of his golf DNA.

Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw learned that you can take the boy out of motocross, but you can’t take motocross out of the boy.

“As a player, Rickie brought a daredevil approach to golf,” McGraw said walking Merion during Sunday singles. “I learned a lot about golf from him, from the way he plays. I was always a conservative player myself, playing from point A to point B. Rickie showed me there are a lot of ways you can play.”

McGraw said Fowler’s daredevil approach isn’t necessarily in a determination to attack pins. He said it’s in the way Fowler relishes trying different shots, in carving and moving shots in flight patterns other players might not dare. It’s also in the way he relishes escaping trouble.

A year ago, Fowler showed McGraw something carrying a water hazard with a 3-wood out of a fairway bunker at the third hole of Tiger Woods’ home club, Isleworth, to set up a birdie. McGraw couldn’t see himself making that gamble. Fowler also showed him something hitting a driver from a sidehill lie out of the rough to make birdie at the Golf Club at Georgia.

“I never imagined shots like that,” McGraw said. “That’s Rickie. He plays with great imagination and great creativity, but he’s also got the skills to pull off those shots.”

Event: Walker Cup

Rod Fowler says he sees the connection between his son’s derring-do on the golf course and on a motocross course.

“We’ve talked about that, how it’s easier pulling off a tough golf shot than trying to pull off a tough jump,” Rod said. “In motocross, there’s a lot more risk. He almost feeds off trying to hit tough shots.”

With his long mop of brown hair, Fowler still looks like he belongs on a motocross course. His swing is as distinct as his wild hair. It's a swing that will be scrutinized more now that he’s turning pro. It isn’t the classic on-plane swing you see in most PGA Tour pros. It’s a flat back swing, slightly laid off.

“It’s a throwback,” McGraw said. “It’s definitely different, but he has a lot of confidence in that swing and the ball keeps falling where he’s looking.”

Fowler’s swing wasn’t fashioned under the tutelage of a country club coach. His swing was developed at Murrieta Valley Golf Range, under the eye of a driving range instructor, Barry McDonnell. He’s still the only swing coach Fowler’s ever had.

“Barry taught Rickie old school,” Rod Fowler said. “He taught him to play with feel rather than mechanics. He also taught him how to fix himself. Mentally, he was good for Rickie. He taught him never to let anything get in his way.”

It’s a lesson Fowler will take to Boise this week.