OK, say Rory McIlroy is the next Tiger Woods, or a reasonable facsimile. So who will be his Phil Mickelson?
How about Rickie Fowler?
Sure, Fowler hasn’t won since the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship–his only PGA Tour victory–but he is playing the best sustained golf of his career heading into the third leg of the PGA Tour playoffs this week, the BMW Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo.
“I think I’ve been a lot more prepared to go tee it up Thursdays than I ever have, and actually during the tournaments, my mental process before each shot has been a lot better and I’ve been able to kind of step into every shot,” said Fowler, who credits his big season to teaming with instructor Butch Harmon in December.
“But just, I think, a lot of the mental process and then actually believing in the swing stuff that Butch and I have been working on.”
Fowler, who shot 64 to win the California State High School Championship as a junior at Murrieta Valley High, finished in the top 10 in six consecutive events around the world before tying for 23rd in the Deutsche Bank Championship on Monday.
Including in that streak were top-five finishes in all four majors this year, something done previously in the same season by only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
His cumulative score of 32 under par was the best in the majors this year, and his total of 1,108 strokes tied Mickelson for the third best ever in a single season. Only David Duval, 1,107 in 2001, and Woods with 1,095 in 2000, were better.
“From all four, from the Masters to the U.S. Open to the British and then to the PGA, each time I felt more and more comfortable in the situation,” Fowler said. “Actually, being in contention on a consistent basis, nothing surprises you.”
Fowler turned pro in 2009, two years after McIlroy, following a stint at Oklahoma State. The Southern California native held the lead on the back nine in the PGA at Valhalla before McIlroy passed him.
Considering where he is in his career compared to McIlroy, who recently won the Open Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in consecutive outings, Fowler is optimistic.
“I would say Rory is definitely a step ahead of me, or two, or four majors,” said Fowler, who has had a friendly rivalry with McIlroy since the 2007 Walker Cup. “I definitely have some work to do, but there is a potential of him and I being able to play against each other for a long time to come, both being the same age.
“There’s a lot of guys under 30 years old in the top 50 in the world right now. As far as Rory and I sticking out as two, I think Rory is kind of out on his own right now, and we’ll see if a few of us can rack up some more wins.”
There is the potential for the two 25-year-olds to be going head to head for major titles many times in the next 10-to-15 years, or even longer.
McIlroy sees it, too, to a point.
“Golf doesn’t create say a Federer-Nadal or a McEnroe-Connors (type of rivalry), what tennis would or some other sports,” said McIlroy, noting that the top players don’t compete nearly as often in golf.
“I wouldn’t mind if I was always compared to someone, not compared but if my name was mentioned and the other one was, too,” McIlroy said. “That just seems how golf is, with rivalries. It didn’t work too badly for players in the past. …
“There’s a bunch of young guys that could break through and become legends of this game, Rickie Fowler being one of them. You just have to look at how he’s played the majors this year. Jordan Spieth is another.”
Sure, Woods owns his rivalry against Mickelson with a 14-5 lead in major titles, but Lefty finished second nine times.
Golf had some great rivalries long before that. Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Jack Nicklaus had Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson.
While Fowler understands that McIlroy definitely has the upper hand right now, he definitely is not intimidated–even though he came out second best when playing alongside the eventual champ in the final round of the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
“I said it after the British Open, him and I playing in the final group, that it wasn’t going to be the last time him and I were in the final group together or battling for a major down the stretch,” said Fowler, who tied for second that day and also in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst behind Martin Kaymer.
The thing is, he knows he can beat McIlroy.
Fowler has only two victories in his pro career, the Wells Fargo and the 2011 Korea Kolon Open.
Both times, McIlroy finished second.
–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange; Tom LaMarre, TSX Golf Editor