Fans flock to Rickie for winning ways

By Dave George
Published on

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Everybody, it seems, is Rickie Fowler's buddy.

Chattering grade-schoolers racing along outside the Honda Classic gallery ropes in pint-size orange Puma outfits, check.

Michael Jordan, who played 36 holes Tuesday with Rickie at the Floridian Club in Palm City, check and double-check.

Add a few more checks for the mud-streaked pals of Rickie's youth, the guys who rode supercross and BMX bikes with him growing up and still come around at his Jupiter home from time to time.

Oh, and there's Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, two of Fowler's closest friends on the PGA Tour. They want to see him win major titles, like they have, because doing so would push golf's popularity past traditional boundaries. Tiger Woods did that better than anyone, of course, and he is cool with Rickie, too, coming out to play practice rounds together at the Medalist when he is able.

"It's awesome to see that he's able to make some swings right now," Fowler, 27, said in reference to a fresh video that Tiger posted showing himself making full 9-iron swings in a golf simulator while rehabbing from back surgery. "I look forward to maybe getting him out. I'll see if I can beat him if he's using 9-iron and down. We'll try and build him up a little bit."

All of these connections were fascinating before, back when Rickie was a flashy new fan favorite with long hair and tall dreams, but now that he's all the way up to No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking people are taking a whole new look at the game behind the fame. Never mind that the flowing locks are gone. It's Rickie's confidence that is growing, with a win at the Players Championship last May and another at a fully-stocked Abu Dhabi event in January and a near miss in a Phoenix Open playoff three weeks ago.

Could Rickie win the Honda Classic, where he tied for seventh in 2012 behind a hard-charging group that included major champions Rory McIlroy, Tiger, Justin Rose and Charl Schwartzel?

That will depend on how well Fowler makes friends with the normally strident Champion course at PGA National. His driving accuracy (tied for 80th on tour) will need to be a little sharper, but if some of those tee shots wind up closer to the fans than the fairways, the merry mobs that stampede after Rickie might just consider that a bonus.

"Rickie treats everybody well regardless of where he's at or who he's talking to," Mickelson said. "I think that's a real sign of what a quality guy he is, and the fact that he happens to be one of the game's best players is exciting for the game of golf. He's very appealing. He carries himself with a lot of charisma and people are drawn to him."

All kinds of people. Who couldn't love a 5-foot-9 player who flies it out there with the big boys and has fun doing it, the way Lee Trevino and Gary Player did? And when that same guy spends so much time signing autographs and conversations with young fans of all shapes and sizes and interests, can't get much more magnetic than that.

"I think it's just, you know, opening a few more doors as far as showing people that it's not just one way in and you can have fun playing golf," Rickie said following his Wednesday Honda pro-am round. "It's a cool, fun game. It's not just one type of person that can play or one type of person that does play."

The real fun, of course, is in the winning. Fowler's had his close calls in the majors, including top-five finishes at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA in 2014, but these days he is cutting it closer to the bone with a scoring average of 69.87 that ranks fifth on tour. In 2014 he ranked 30th.

The PGA Tour staff has treated Honda fans with a first-round pairing of Fowler with Sergio Garcia and Davis Love III. They go off the first tee at 12:35 p.m.

Plenty of Rickie's buddies, old and new, are sure to be tagging along. How about you?

This article was written by Dave George from The Palm Beach Post and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.