PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — For the past three years, Rickie Fowler had paraded around on Sundays, resplendent in orange from head to toe, drawing as much attention for his attire as his play. All the while, he knew what he said here the other day: “You’re either a PGA Tour winner or you’re not.”
Fowler arrives here for the Players Championship, for the first time, having left the latter club behind. That gives this week’s event, not to mention the rest of the season, a different feel.
Last month, Bubba Watson won the Masters. Last week, Rory McIlroy wrested the world’s No. 1 ranking back from Luke Donald. With Fowler’s victory Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship — where he beat McIlroy and D.A. Points in a playoff — there is a genuine sense that the days when the only players who mattered were recognizable by one name — Tiger or Phil — might be over.
Woods and Mickelson have won once apiece this season, yet Sunday television ratings, according to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, are up 30 percent from last year.
“The younger players . . . the more they play well, the more interest there is, because the fans are coming to our telecasts,” Finchem said here Wednesday. “They are spending on average more minutes on the telecast to learn about these young players.
“In addition, I think with Tiger not being quite as dominant as he was five or six years ago, it’s allowing more focus on the other players. . . . All of those things combine for what might be the best combination of things to drive our television audience.”
Fowler could be one who drives it into the future. Soon after he left Oklahoma State early to join the tour for his first full season in 2010, young fans began popping up in galleries wearing his boldly colored Puma hats — complete with flat brims — and shirts with all the colors of a box of Crayolas. Until Sunday though, Fowler, 23, had worked his way into contention several times, yet hadn’t closed. So the question followed him: When?
“I know the stress of trying to win can be tough when you’re expected to,” Mickelson said. “I was really happy to see him break through and win, and it’s very possible that that will propel him to relax and just take off.”
Relaxing, actually, isn’t Fowler’s problem. He is confident enough to wear a mustache that doesn’t appear that it will ever become fully formed. He frequently jokes with his playing partners, and doesn’t seem capable of tossing a club.
“I think the attitude might be his strongest suit, because he always has a smile on his face, always has a good time, never gets down on himself,” said Hunter Mahan, who will join Fowler and Woods in what amounts to a marquee group Thursday and Friday.
Fowler and McIlroy are considered the likely heirs to the Mickelson-Woods legacy. Both are 23. They first met as members of opposite teams at the 2007 Walker Cup — the Ryder Cup for amateurs. “I felt like he was the best player on that team at the time,” McIlroy said, “and he was also the nicest guy.”
Now, they are at the center of the game, poised to shine here. McIlroy, on the advice of his then-manager, skipped this event a year ago. “Looking back on it, it wasn’t one of my brightest moments,” he said this week. He is here now, as is Lee Westwood, who trails only McIlroy and Donald in the world rankings. The only marquee names not at TPC Sawgrass — home of the famous island green at the par-3 17th — are Watson, who’s still tending to his newly adopted son, and Dustin Johnson, who hasn’t played since March because of injuries.
There is a sense that there is a new character in a new cast worth watching.
“You’re seeing a lot of guys winning, and the kind of fluctuation in the rankings” that follows, Fowler said. “But I definitely think it is beneficial for the game, for guys like Tiger, Phil, Rory, Luke to be playing at their best. . . . I would rather beat guys while they’re playing well vs. struggling.”
Now he can say that as someone who has beaten them, and intends to do so again.
Note: Finchem, in his annual state of the tour Q and A, said the PGA Tour has no plans to change its recognition of the Masters as an official tour event because of Augusta National’s absence of female members.
“We are not going to give up the Masters as a tournament on our tour,” Finchem said. “It’s too important. And so at the end of the day, the membership of that club have to determine their membership. They are not doing anything illegal.”
The PGA Tour has a policy of not playing at other clubs that exclude women or minorities.