Rickie Fowler's long awaited breakthrough win on the PGA Tour arrived earlier this month. But unlike many golfers who need to be atop leaderboards to gain popularity, Fowler has attracted a sizable gallery following since he turned pro three years ago.
A pop sensation and fashion trendsetter, the former Oklahoma State All-American's flashy apparel has created a cultlike following among a new generation of golfers.
Young, loyal fans, many among his 350,000 Twitter followers, are drawn to a 23-year-old rising star who wears florescent clothes and a big hat with a lion logo.
“Never has one player moved the needle on fashion so quickly as Rickie Fowler,” said OSU coach Mike McGraw. “I don't know how Puma has kept up with the demand.”
Fowler has the talent and pizazz to develop into one of the PGA Tour's elite players, and a golfer fans love to root for.
For years golf experts have raved about his swing and mental makeup.
Fowler has solid credentials dating back to his amateur days. He compiled a 7-1 match-play record on two Walker Cup teams and was the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world for 36 consecutive weeks. His freshman year at OSU, he won the Ben Hogan Award as the top college golfer.
As a pro, he will surpass $8 million in career earnings this weekend at the Colonial. He was the first rookie ever selected to the Ryder Cup team. He has five career second-place finishes.
But Fowler had never won on the PGA Tour until the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month.
In his 67th PGA Tour event, Fowler won a three-way playoff that included Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 ranked player in the world.
If nothing else, the win ended the question: “Why hasn't Rickie Fowler won?”
“It freed me up a lot,” Fowler said in a phone interview with The Oklahoman. “It got the weight off my shoulders, the monkey off my back. It mainly freed me up getting that first win out of the way.”
Fowler is playing the best golf of his life. The week after his debut win, Fowler finished tied for second at The Players Championship. The streak began with a top-10 finish the final tournament in April in New Orleans.
“I'm obviously playing well right now,” Fowler said. “I'm confident in my game mentally. The last month or so is some of the best ball striking I've had of my career.
“There were points like the Walker Cups, and the Ryder Cup two years ago, when I played really well. But for a stretch, this is some of the best golf I've ever played.”
Fowler is a dynamo wrapped in 5-foot-9, 150-pound wiry frame. But it's not as if a major change produced his recent hot streak.
“I wouldn't say it's anything in particular,” Fowler said. “I feel I have really good balance and really good rhythm throughout the swing so I'm able to deliver the club consistently. Hitting the ball out of the center of the face can help a lot of things.”
One of the side benefits to the long-awaited win was it ignited a celebration among his legion of fans, neon clad devotees wearing flat-brimmed hats.
“There was a lot of pressure on me,” Fowler said. “A lot of fans wanted it so much for me, so it was good to get it out of the way.”
Regardless of where he ranks on the money list — he's currently seventh with nearly $2.5 million in earnings this year — Fowler will be one of the most popular players on the tour simply because of how he dresses.
Making cuts and being in contention draws fans. But his taste in clothing is part of Fowler's persona.
McGraw has spent the past 15 years with OSU's nationally renowned golf program, the last seven as head coach. He's seen several talented Cowboys turn pro.
Fowler is unique.
His outside-the-box fashion is legendary. If he plays on Sundays, he wears orange head to toe as a tribute to OSU. Orange tends to stand out.
Standing out, though, is nothing new for Fowler. He began wearing slacks in junior competition when he was 12 because “that's what the pros wore.”
When McGraw began following his career at age 16, Fowler wore a big white belt and white slacks.
“He looked different than any junior golfer,” McGraw said. “He wore long hair. No one else wore it like that. Rickie knew he wanted to look different. Payne Stewart did it. When Payne Stewart started wearing those knickers, everyone knew Payne Stewart. It's a trademark.”
Fowler's trademark was steeped in his Southern California upbringing.
“He liked the look of skaters and motorcycle guys. They looked a lot like him,” McGraw said. “He just brought that to the golf world.”
Fowler said he's always liked a little pizazz.
“That's just me,” Fowler said. “I'm basically just trying to be myself, not trying to be anyone else. Whether it's big hats and colorful clothes, that's all it is.”
The ultimate thrill for OSU fans is Fowler wearing orange on Sundays, the final day of a tournament.
“I had a great time my two years at Oklahoma State,” Fowler said. “I had awesome teammates. Stillwater is an awesome place. It's always going to be with me. I'll always be a Cowboy. I enjoy getting back to Stillwater for games and being part of the program. I'll always be part of it.”
He has a new look in 2012. He began growing a wispy mustache last fall as part of Movember, a monthlong focus on men's health awareness.
“It just kept going from there,” Fowler said. “It was all for fun. A lot of people don't like it and ask me to shave it.”
He has no plans to shave it anytime soon.
“I guess I'm stubborn in a way,” Fowler said. “It's just a way of showing it doesn't bother me what other people think of me. If I can pass down to younger kids to just be yourself, don't worry about other people, that's what I would like for it to come off as.”
Bright future, nice guy
Talk to anyone who knows Fowler and they always slip in a line about him being one of the good guys.
An example is the Patriot Cup on Monday in Owasso, the highlight event of a year-round project as part of the Folds of Honor Foundation. That organization raises millions each year to help provide money for students to go to college, children of soldiers who have died or been wounded in battle.
“It's a great cause that they help put kids through school for families that have been affected,” Fowler said. “It's been cool for me to be around guys like (founder) Dan (Rooney), guys still active and injured vets, the Wounded Warriors. It's a moving day (emotionally).”
As for his golf game, in his early 20s, with three years pro experience and ultra talent, it will be must-watch-TV the next decade to see how often Fowler holds up trophies on Sunday afternoons.
Having compiled 17 career top-10 finishes, Fowler this year is ninth in the FedEx Cup rankings, No. 20 in the world rankings.
“Rickie is very well grounded,” McGraw said. “He's just who he appears to be. There's nothing phony. There's nothing fake. He is gaining confidence with every event that he plays. He has cracked the code of how to win.
“Sometimes expectations for a 21- or 22-year-old kid can be pretty high. He's done a great job of handling all the expectations. Even before the win he accomplished a lot of things some people never accomplish their entire career.”
Fowler was chosen for the 2010 Ryder Cup team. He's a good bet to be on this year's team, at worst a selection by team captain Davis Love III. His goal is to finish among the top eight Americans in Ryder Cup points to assure being on the team.
“I really enjoyed the week over there two years ago,” Fowler said. “I'd really like to be part of the team this year.”
The Ryder Cup would be another chapter in what some are predicting might evolve into a fun rivalry between Fowler and McIlroy.
“I guess we're two of the leaders in the younger generation, but there are a lot of good players under 30,” Fowler said. “Rory and I definitely have a friendly rivalry. I enjoy playing with him and against him. I respect him and his game. I know he wants to beat me and I want to beat him.”
The next question, of course: When will Rickie Fowler win a major?
“I'd rather win one sooner rather than later,” Fowler said. “Getting a major and being a major champion is on my lifelong goal list.”
Regardless of when that first major arrives, he will remain a representative of a new generation.
“It pumps me up a bit when I see the kids out there. It's great to have a good following,” Fowler said. “It makes me want to play well.”