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The New King of Swing

Rickie Fowler in the May 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine Red Bulletin Magazine

 

On this gorgeous February afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, Rickie Fowler lines up next to his ball and surveys the surroundings of the 2012 Waste Management Open. Not a single cloud mars the blue skies over the throng of observers surrounding the famous 16th hole at the TPC Scottsdale Country Club.

Fowler’s dressed head-to-toe in bright green threads -- from his spiked cleats to the top of his famously disheveled head, upon which sits not one but two emerald-colored Puma hats. He squints pensively, somehow focused on this important shot with a double stack of hats resting precariously on his head. The sea of rabid fans remains paused, transfixed.

Then he hits the ball, and in an elegant arc it soars through the sky, graceful and silent. The crowd holds its breath, the sea of 25,000+ riddled with islands of bright orange and purple -- the signature badge of Rickie Fowler fans looking to emulate their loudly-dressed hero.

The ball floats high into the sun and begins its descent down, eventually landing on the green mere yards from the flag that marks its hopeful destination. The crowd cheers, and a “Rickie! Rickie!” chant begins filling the stands. One man can be heard yelling drunkenly, “Green is the color of money, baby! Green is the color of money!”

Then Fowler does something never seen before in the long, long history of this most staid sport. He unzips his large Cobra bag, starts pulling out fistfuls of fitted hats like Santa summoning gifts from his rucksack, runs to the long rows of stadium seating and begins tossing the hats into the stands.

The already raucous crowd erupts, some leaping to try to catch the signed hats that Fowler is flinging across the stands like Frisbees. The rest are just jumping up and down with a fervor that threatens to collapse the bleachers.

He’s brash and plays with feral instincts. His game is almost impatient, on the cusp of unhinged.

It is a rock-star moment in the normally hermetically-sanitized environment of professional golf. It’s David Lee Roth singing in a church choir. Evel Knievel ripping up the lawns of a polo field on a star-spangled Harley-Davidson. Mickey Rourke angrily yelling “Bingo!” as he slaps down chips in the game room of a retirement home. This is, without question, not your father’s country-club golf.

Fowler’s style of play is aggressive. He’s brash and plays with feral instincts. His game is almost impatient, on the cusp of unhinged. In a way, everything is off a couple degrees from the prototypical Pebble Beach golfer: His swing is loose and unmechanical. His clothes are bright and youthful. His hair is shaggy and oh-so-perfectly unkempt. His background is not country-club blue blood, but public-course blue collar.

So it makes sense that when it came to role models as a young boy, Fowler didn’t look to golf. He preferred his heroes wild, with full-throttle abandonment -- dudes like Jeremy McGrath, the “King of Supercross” credited with kickstarting the death-defying sport of freestyle motocross. “I looked up to him for his work ethic. He came from the same town I’m from, didn’t come from a bunch of money, and figured it out on his own,” Fowler tells me a couple weeks after Arizona as we’re lounging in Venice Beach. “And obviously he’s one of the greatest riders of all time.”

Which is why for most of his youth, he split time between the driving range and the dirt jumps in his hometown of Murietta, California, riding motorbikes and BMX: “If I wasn’t on the golf course I’d be building jumps for mini bikes that I had. I like being in the air -- that was kind of way for me to let loose, have fun.”

But even then, as a knee-high grommet barely able to swing his grandpa’s clubs, he knew motocross was but a distraction: Golf was his destiny. “When I was 7 years old my main dream was to play on the PGA Tour. I don’t know exactly what it was, I just knew from the first time I was out messing around on the driving range I fell in love with it. I don’t know what clicked.”

nullScott Halleran/Red Bull Content Pool

At 3 years old, he’d go fishing and golfing with his Japanese grandfather after school. He showed a natural penchant for the latter, even without any formal training. The owner of his local public driving range, Barry McDonnell, took a 7-year-old Fowler under his wing and began a tutelage that lasted till last May, when McDonnell passed away.

His teacher was as old school as they come, eschewing technology for an instinctual game that fed into Fowler’s motocross-bred sensibilities. Unlike many pros who rely mostly on the videotaping of swings, followed by hyperanalysis of every movement, McDonnell never touched a video camera, employing fundamental instructions that allowed Fowler to learn the nuances himself.

“I kind of just dug it out of the dirt and figured it out. My swing is very natural to me; it fits who I am. Nothing is forced,” says Fowler. “I really focused more on how to get the ball to do a certain thing when it’s in the air. Not focusing on what’s going on around me, but more what the ball is doing.”

Fowler’s swing is physical, brutish -- closer to the slice of a battle-axe than the elegant, clean arch of a well-trained pro. Slowed down and analyzed, it looks more like that of a slugger trying to beat a baseball into the rafters. He plays quickly, fluidly, with very little self-analysis. He is not a pontificator.

“I still get similar adrenaline rushes on the course like I did racing, kind of those make-or-break situations,” explains Fowler. “Obviously it’s a little different, because if you’re out racing on the track and you’re dicing with someone, you’re going to get pretty pumped up quickly, so it feels like there’s always an adrenaline rush going. Whereas with golf there’s quite a bit of time between shots, so it’s a little bit more up and down.”

“I’d heard about him but I’d never seen him play, and I was mesmerized,” Fowler’s coach at Oklahoma State University, Mike McGraw, remembers about his first recruiting trip to see the wunderkind play. “I loved the way he played the game, like people might’ve played 30 or 40 years ago. By feel, the excitement.” Comparing Fowler’s enjoyment to that of a 10-year-old, McGraw saw an unbridled passion for the game that many of Fowler’s peers lacked. “He has the ability to just play instead of just working on technique,” he says. “He’s more of an artist than a golfer. He’s creating things all the time.”

Is he a trend-bucking rebel, or is he a reticent poster boy for the post-Tiger PGA?

Things progressed quickly from there. After a sizzling high school career (he posted an all-time record of 62 on his home course as a freshman), Fowler committed to the Oklahoma State program. He shot a 63 while competing for OSU at Chicago’s Olympia Fields, tying the competitive course record set by PGA Hall of Fame champion Vijay Singh (who set the mark at the 2003 U.S. Open). As a freshman he was awarded the illustrious Ben Hogan Award -- golf’s version of the Heisman Trophy -- and in his two short years at OSU notched seven out of eight Walker Cup wins, while ranking as the number-one amateur golfer in the world for 36 consecutive weeks between 2007 and 2008.

When Fowler went pro at the end of 2009, he tied for seventh in his first PGA event. The second? He tied for second, barely eluding victory in a playoff loss. It was the beginning of a red-hot first season for which he won the highly competitive PGA Rookie of the Year in 2010. That year Fowler also became the youngest American ever invited to join the Ryder Cup team, where he played alongside top-ranked veterans Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, and Tiger Woods on a quest to beat their European rivals. They failed by a stroke, despite a stunning 4-Birdie effort by Fowler in the last four holes that had the European team reeling. Regardless, no golfer before Fowler had reached the Ryder Cup within a year of playing in the Walker Cup, its amateur equivalent.

“The Ryder Cup was my biggest professional achievement so far. I was the youngest guy to make the Ryder Cup team, as a rookie. Being a part of a team with guys I used to look up to as a kid -- guys like Tiger and Phil -- it’s just a fun week,” says Fowler. “It’s hard to explain, the time that you spend on the course, in the team room hanging out, playing Ping-Pong, the dinners. Getting to know everyone, just who they are on and off the course, behind closed doors. You kind of grow a little closer with those guys just because of that week. You’re part of, I guess, an elite group in a way.”

Despite not winning any PGA tournaments thus far in his pro career, Fowler’s popularity has blossomed beyond many of his more successful peers. His image is constantly used to market events he participates in, drawing increasingly larger crowds wherever he decides to tee off. It is an ascension that could not have come at a better time for the sport.

NEW BLOOD FOR THE GAME

On November 27, 2009, more than just a $100,000 Cadillac Escalade crashed into that infamous tree and fire hydrant outside of Tiger Woods’ home in Florida. A professional career that enjoyed a trajectory of success simply unparalleled in modern sports history was shattered that early morning. There was no better spokesperson, no better media prism through which to shine your product than the flawless diamond that was Tiger Woods. A mind-blowing $5 billion to $12 billion in shareholder wealth was estimated lost due to Woods’ infidelity, a financial body blow to sponsors like Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, and Nike. But no commercial entity was hurt more that Thanksgiving weekend than the PGA.

With attendance slumping and ratings down from the Tiger Recession, the game of golf needs new blood. Badly. No one from Madison Avenue to ESPN headquarters to the hallowed halls of the Augusta National Golf Club would try to convince you otherwise. So when you see the excitement and crowd-sourced energy created by the bright orange silhouette of Rickie Fowler, you understand the hope -- and pressure -- that falls on his slight frame. And so the question becomes: Is Fowler the true heir apparent of the Tiger Media Throne, despite his statesman-rankling tendencies for bright colors, flat-brimmed caps, and teen-heartthrob hairdo? Or is he the Chosen One promoted by the PGA specifically because of these trappings? Is he a trend-bucking rebel, or is he a reticent poster boy for the post-Tiger PGA? Well, he’s both. And neither.

The fact is he’s actually a lot more conservative than the media would like to play him out to be.

“Well, don’t you think he’s a pretty smart kid?” notes McGraw in his perceptive Oklahoma twang. “He knows that he’s a nice-looking young man, and he’s smart enough to know that, ‘Heck, I can help myself out if I create something that people will remember me for.’ The fact is he’s actually a lot more conservative than the media would like to play him out to be. He’s dead serious about his career. Old people -- like me -- they’ll look at him and say, ‘Ohhh, flashy long hair, must be a partier, must be whatever.’ But after you play with him you kind of go, ‘I guess I was being judgmental.’ He’s a good guy, he only does healthy, wholesome things -- so what that his hair’s long?”

Fowler, for his part, is handling the sudden rush of fame with measured bemusement. There is unerring confidence emanating from him, but one gets the feeling that even without the $7 million in purse money he’s already collected, and without the fame, and without the hot flashing lights and endless crisp Puma caps, he might still have that sort of unshakable confidence. He’s polite, accommodating to the myriad requests the photographers, stylists, and handlers make as he swings a club outside in the chilly midwinter sands of Venice Beach, shoeless, pretending to hit a ball into nothingness. There is a sort of detachment that may serve him well in the pro spotlight.

But he’s not detached. Clips of fawning fans waiting for him to sign their autographs, and happily getting them, populate YouTube, as do clips of middle-aged moms pulling off sneakers for him to sign; 10-year-old boys dressed like walking grape sodas with oversized fitted caps covering their shaggy coifs; and a slightly disturbing population of divorcées taking photos with backs arched, lips artificially inflated like Donald Duck.

Fowler is a PGA star seemingly laboratory cloned for the Facebook generation. A music video called “Oh Oh Oh” that he made for a mock boy band called The Golf Boys went viral (more than 3 million hits and rising). He has over a quarter of a million Twitter followers. His video blog shows him running around topless in women’s tennis shorts and practicing the “Happy Gilmore” swing with NFL star Reggie Bush. He’s caddied for Mark Wahlberg, and hit an improbable blind hole-in-one through buildings at a Red Bull event.

 

 

“Obviously being recognizable comes with the territory; it’s not something I can run away from if I’m trying to be the best player in the world,” Fowler points out matter-of-factly when his wide demographic appeal is mentioned. “I don’t wanna hide from my fans at all. I wanna be someone that kids look up to. Any time I’m at a tournament like that I’m ready for fans to come up.”

Fowler doesn’t seem to dwell on nor deny his “Tiger Beat” looks. The Golf Boys’ video actively deflates the image of the pretty boy by embracing the Justin Bieber role, summoning lightning while singing in a tone that could well use some Auto-Tune tweaking. But one has to wonder, by putting such an emphasis on looks, Skittles-colored clothing, and tousled bangs -- especially in a sport so entrenched in tradition -- is Fowler unnecessarily heaping more pressure on himself? “Not really. I mean I don’t really look at it that way,” Fowler argues. “Most of my pressure is basically put on myself and what I’m trying to do with my game. Any of the pressure added by fans or media doesn’t really top the pressure I put on myself.”

Of course, to keep the spotlight off, he could just start dressing like his peers on the PGA circuit. “Yeah, but then I wouldn’t be me. The whole Bieber comparison, there’s always people that shout it out in the crowd at every tournament. They think they’re original, but I hear it all the time. At first it was a lot tougher, I wanted to have everyone like me. But I had to realize that I can’t please everyone; there’s always gonna be haters, whether it’s they don’t like the way I dress, they think I’m a punk kid -- I mean I don’t drink, I don’t go out, I’m as laid-back as they come.”

Suddenly we’re interrupted. Fowler is needed in wardrobe. “For me my ultimate goal is to be the best player in the world. Maybe once I’ve accomplished that goal and have become the best, maybe they’ll start calling Bieber ‘Fowler.’ ”

 

 

Check out the May 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 10) for more features and articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.

 

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