Golf's young guns leading the way
Before Tiger Woods, golf was for golf people. Tiger became the most famous athlete in the world playing a game that 99 per cent of the globe knew nothing about. He engaged casual fans with his greatness and his undeniable charisma and when his personal life spun out of control he proceeded to lure in the swelling legion of trashy tabloid addicts as well. But as a golfer these days he bores me and I am actually a golf fan. Last week when he missed the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship, I was kind of relieved because it meant we didn't have to hear the announcers spend all weekend dissecting his shaky game at the expense of golfers who were actually playing well.
Truth is, there is a ridiculous amount of precocious and talented young players around who are both better and more interesting than Tiger. Two of them went head-on last weekend in the type of battle that should bring casual young fans out in droves and keep the cash registers humming for years to come. Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, 23, is officially the No 1 player in the world and until further notice the single most talented golfer on the face of the earth. But it was another 23-year-old who stole his thunder at the Wells Fargo and has a chance to electrify and energise the youthful demographic like no other player.
Rickie Yutaka Fowler was born and raised in southern California. It was Fowler's maternal Japanese grandfather, Yutaka Tanaka, who piqued and developed Rickie's love for the game when he took him to the driving range at the age of three. Fowler went on to star at Oklahoma State before joining the tour full-time in 2010. Back then Fowler's apparel was more memorable than his golf game. An endorsement deal saw him play in brightly coloured monochrome outfits topped by a stylish mop of hair under an oversized flat bill cap.
On Sundays he wears bright orange in homage to his alma mater and, yes, Rickie is boy-band cute. In fact, a little less than a year ago, I remember reading something from a pious and smug sports columnist who described Fowler as 'a primped-up poodle with a beautiful swing who is still more Justin Bieber than Jack Nicklaus'. Well, what did I know?
Things changed when Fowler showed up for the 2011 British Open at Royal St George's in the southeast of England. Fowler played alongside recently minted US Open champ McIlroy in Saturday's third round and it was a day of pure misery with howling gale-force winds and rain blowing sideways. Rickie showed up on the first tee in a cute all-white windbreaker and pants accentuated with orange polka dots. On a grey day in a grey country, this pretty boy from the US could not have looked more out of place. But by the time his round was finished, nobody was talking about his wardrobe. He shot a 68, the low round of the day, while McIlroy glumly fought the conditions and came in at 74.
Interviewed afterwards, Fowler had a huge smile on his face as he talked about how much fun he had. Some of the more staid and reserved members of the British press were gushing in their praise of Fowler, calling it one of the finest rounds they had ever seen at the Open. It was official: the kid was more than a look.
Well semi-official because he still had to win a tournament on the US PGA Tour and at the Wells Fargo he found himself in a sudden-death play-off with McIlroy and D.A. Points. On the first hole, both Points and Fowler hit massive, 330-yard drives. McIlroy took out a three-wood and outdrove them both by 10 yards. Golf fan or not, you have to know that there may be only three or four people alive who can hit a three-wood 340 yards, that's how ridiculously talented McIlroy is. But it was Fowler who got up and down for a birdie with a nervy approach to win his first title wearing colours that looked more appropriate for prison overalls than a golf champion. 'That orange was freshly squeezed today,' said a wry Nick Faldo in the broadcast booth.
But there was no denying that the gallery was also jammed with freshly squeezed kids wearing Rickie orange. To them, he is more than a youthful style icon. He's considerate, amiable, genuine and unfailingly generous in his time and services. 'I want to grow the game and get young kids involved,' he said. 'I want to be somewhat of a role model and a positive influence and someone that parents will want them to look up to.'
This is more than talk, though. 'I love the way he treats people and the way he works at his game,' said Phil Mickelson. 'I just think he is great for the tour.' Indeed he is, and along with likes of McIlroy and a plethora of young stars, it's good news for both the casual and the converted golf fan. Get used to the orange crush.