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The transformation of Rickie Fowler

What do Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Rickie Fowler have in common?

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PGA Championship - Final Round

There was an inkling coming into this golf season that Rickie Fowler wasn’t much more than an overhyped overaged tween with a sometimes-consistent golf swing and no cojones in big tournaments.

That was silly, of course, because in golf circles he’s always been known as a pro’s pro and most folks knew that he’d teamed with world-class teacher Butch Harmon in the offseason to smooth that swing timing out.

Early in the year Harmon was quoted saying the following:

“I love the kid. The thing I like is he’s been saying ‘I want to be known more for my golf than my clothes and my hat. I want to contend in majors.”

It’s not just a quote anymore. It’s real.

Fowler finished off something on Sunday at the PGA Championship that’s only been done by two other golfers in the modern era: He finished top five at each of the four majors in 2014.

The other two to turn the trick, you may have heard of them: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Unfortunately he also accomplished something that neither of those men ever did — something nobody has since the Masters began in the mid 1930s: He finished top five at all four and managed not to win a single one.

Fifth at Augusta, second at Pinehurst, second at Hoylake, and third at Valhalla.

The PGA though, this was the one he should have. After bombing in this 30-foot putt on No. 10 he led alone on the back nine of a major with only three men within striking distance (he led Mickelson and Henrik Stenson by one and McIlroy by three):

He was the coolest dude on the course all day — playing with Phil Mickelson you would have thought it was Fowler who’d won five majors and not the big Lefty.

I was chatting with Shane Bacon, the golf writer from Yahoo and we both genuinely thought when Fowler was leading at No. 10 that he was going to win. Rory was displaying a negative amount of energy, we don’t trust Phil, and Rickie was just churning big-boy putts.

It came undone down the stretch a little bit, though.

An uncharacteristically-leaky tee shot at No. 14 led to bogey and then a pushed drive at No. 16 led to a dangerous par. Fowler played holes 11-18 in 1 over par and Rory McIlroy who is an historically great golfer already at the age of 25 smelled blood. He played his final nine in 4 under to win by one over Mickelson and two over Fowler and Stenson.

Fowler said afterwards this one was the most bitter.

“This is probably the one that hurts the most for me with the majors there year,” said Fowler. “The first three were a lot of fun and obviously to be in great positions and to get great finishes. This one I felt like I could go out today and win it. I put myself in a good position.

PGA Championship - Final Round

His TV interview with David Feherty as McIlroy shut things down behind them in bizarre fashion in the dark brought astonishing levity to the entire situation. They joked (joked!) about how if this was junior golf there would still be two or three holes left to play. Fowler was laughing.

And it’s this attitude, this “hey golf is important and I take it seriously but it doesn’t define who I am” attitude that has endeared Fowler to the masses. Meshed with his sex appeal (let’s call it what it is!) and a gritty game that in 2014 earned the respect of even the most calloused golf diehards and we have a potential American superstar on our hands.

Somebody in the United States will need to take the torch from Tiger and Phil and challenge the Ulsterman McIlroy for the next decade plus and I can think of no greater foil to the kid from Holywood than the kid from California.

Buddies, yes. But gamers both.

Fowler will head to the Ryder Cup now and try to team with Mickelson and Co. to win the US’ first title since 2008. Improbable? Oh, it’s as improbable as it gets, but with dudes like Fowler and Jordan Spieth gunning at Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer it should at least be fun.

Plus now the former Cowboy has a season of “contending in majors down the back nine on a Sunday” experience in his bag and there’s not a statistic you can wrap around that.

When asked after Sunday what Valhalla and the duel with Mickelson and McIlroy meant, Fowler got solemn and (for him) borderline emotional.

“Right now the sting,” said Fowler. “Like I said, I really felt like I could win this one. Disappointed to come up short, but like I said to look back on the full year and all four majors, definitely something to be proud of.”

He should be.

We are.

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