The e-mail was from a friend and, more importantly, a long-time PGA Tour observer who has come by his insights honestly and it prompted an immediate and utterly repented mea culpa. The crime was a blog item that suggested Rickie Fowler’s play at last week’s Frys.com Open had put a down payment on the 2010 Rookie of the Year award, and the rebuttal was more than warranted.
“Would you guys please stop it! The circus around (Fowler) is big enough as it is,” my electronic consciousness pleaded. “For once, let's let an American prospect prove himself first, then anoint him King, OK?”
In our race to discover the next big thing, the media is a chronic violator of the single-most important tenet in golf, if not all of sports – actions, not potential, are what counts.
It’s less an indictment on the abilities of Ty Tryon or Ricky Barnes or, with apologies to one of the Tour’s most engaging and accommodating players, Charles Howell III than it is an example of the media’s unrealistic expectations, and the 2010 lot has the potential of being a hanging fastball that is impossible to lay off.
Fowler, fresh off back-to-back top 10s and a playoff loss last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., would be the No. 1 draft choice for 2010 for many, but he’s followed closely by the likes of Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa, Jamie Lovemark and Michael Sim.
Of the leading five, Fowler and McIlroy seem to have the most polished games at this stage although neither are full-time Tour locks for 2010. Fowler’s play has earned him an exemption into the second stage of Q-School, while McIlroy – who finished in the top 10 at the U.S. Open and PGA and played 11 Tour events this year – will likely pass on Tour membership and play a similarly limited U.S. schedule in ’10.
“He did consider (membership), but he’s so young. I wouldn’t say we’re playing it safe. Just being sensible,” McIlroy’s manager Chubby Chandler with International Sports Management said. “It’s the first time I’ve managed a player and been concerned about burn out.”
Despite his play at the Frys.com Open, where he finished second alongside Fowler in a playoff, Lovemark is bound for the capricious first round of Q-School this week, while Ishikawa (six Tour events in ’09) was solid for the International side at the Presidents Cup but will also play a limited Tour schedule next year.
Sim, who will not technically be a Tour rookie but struggled with injuries his first trip around the Big Leagues in 2007, owned the Nationwide Tour this year with three victories, a “battlefield promotion” and an earnings record. More importantly, he’s the only one among the five assured a full schedule. But even that guarantees nothing.
A close inspection confirms the 2010 class has the potential to be special.
“We have produced (rookie) classes with good players, but rarely with this much depth and this much potential commercial appeal,” said one longtime observer.
Without question, anyone who witnessed the media crush that followed Ishikawa’s every step this year, or McIlroy’s brush with the big stage when it counted the most or Fowler’s current 15 minutes of fabulousness can attest to the group’s Madison Avenue cache.
But then potential has never seen the front door to the World Golf Hall of Fame or Butler Cabin, just ask Mark Carnevale.
In 1992 Carnevale was on top of the world, a Tour winner, a rising star and the circuit’s Rookie of the Year, ahead of fellow first-year players Phil Mickelson and David Toms. Since that breakout year Carnevale has posted four top 10s and finished inside the top 125 in earnings just once. Ditto for 2000, when Michael Clark II took down the world-beater-in-waiting likes of Sergio Garcia and K.J. Choi for RoY honors yet hasn’t seen the top 150 in earnings since.
The point? The deepest classes since 1990, the year the Tour starting dishing rookie hardware, have come from the most unpredictable places.
Few recall 1994 as a watershed moment for future Tour greatness, but that rookie class included Ernie Els (the RoY winner), Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Justin Leonard, Chris DiMarco and Shaun Micheel; or the 2002 class which featured Jonathan Byrd (RoY), Chad Campbell, Tim Clark, Luke Donald and Boo Weekley.
By comparison, 1997 is where potential proved a point and Tiger Woods became the only player to etch his name into the RoY crystal and the Jack Nicklaus Trophy during the same calendar. A good year? Yep, every bit as good as 1982 was for Bordeaux, but hardly deep considering that Jerry Kelly is the only other player of note still making headlines from the ’97 crop.
There is no denying the depth of the current “Fab Five.” Fowler’s next Tour stop (this week’s Viking Classic) could well be his first as a member if “Golf 2.0” finishes what he couldn’t last week and gets his first professional “W,” and European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie should rename McIlroy “The Franchise” in time for next year’s matches.
But they all have work to do before the media and fans hand them the keys to the kingdom. Or, as our e-mailing watchdog so succinctly put it, “let's let an American (or otherwide) prospect prove himself first, then anoint him King.”