A win by one of golf's young guns could boost the sport big-time

Posted: June 13, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. - In the absence of Tiger and in the twilight of Phil, this is what golf needs.

It needs charisma. It needs star power.

It needs beknickered Rickie Fowler, and heartbroken Rory McIlroy, and even golf dork Jordan Spieth.

Any one of them could wind up holding the U.S. Open trophy on Sunday evening. Fowler finished at even-par 70, McIlroy at 1-over, Spieth at 1-under, all within hailing distance of leader Martin Kaymer, who sits at 5-under.

Tiger Woods has missed his second consecutive major tournament because of back surgery, but, after winning 14 majors in 12 years, Woods' crumbling body hasn't mustered another major win in 6 years. McIlroy on Tuesday said that Tiger's injuries and his major drought have allowed the rest of the PGA Tour's top talent to "shine."

And so it has. Bubba Watson has won two majors. Henrik Stenson was the world's best player for a spell last year. Adam Scott won a major and overtook the No. 1 spot. Rory dominated the game (and the tabloids) for months.

Still, it feels as if Mickelson has peaked, his British Open win last year notwithstanding. If Mickelson completes the career Grand Slam here this weekend, it will be a feat of culmination, not a moment of promise.

Golf needs promise.

Golf needs Fowler, as Fowler presented himself yesterday.

He wore pleated white knickers, a light shirt with sky-blue trim and matching argyle socks. It was Fowler's tribute to Payne Stewart, one of Fowler's favorites as a kid, who won the U.S. Open here in 1999.

Fowler remembers the day, 4 months later, when Stewart's private plane crashed in South Dakota. His mother told him as he sat in the back seat with his sister while she drove him home from middle school.

"I started crying in the car," Fowler said, his timing and his inflection perfect.

Fowler looks like Johnny Depp, with that evil smile but with smoky gray eyes. Fowler makes Mickelson look homely, and, with a full palette of Puma pastels, he makes Tiger's wardrobe look sedate.

If there's any question about Fowler's impact, go to any youth clinic and you'll see kids wearing Fowler's flat-billed caps and loud, patterned shirts. Go to any golf shop and you'll see racks and racks of Fowler's gear.

He has clever commercials running with Crowne Plaza hotels and with Farmers Insurance. After his round yesterday he held a Red Bull during his news conference; Red Bull, of course, pays him, too.

Not bad for a guy with one PGA Tour win.

Fowler sells, because Fowler gets it.

He's 25, single, has won more than $12 million, his biggest payday after his only win, at the Wells Fargo in 2012. He was the 2010 PGA Rookie of the Year, but he has never finished better than fifth in his 17 major starts and never better than 10th in five U.S. Opens.

But he's an X Games fan who rides dirt bikes. He adores his little sister, Taylor, a junior on Cal State-Fullerton's golf team, and he includes her in many of his adventures. He tweets, and sometimes dresses, like a canary. He plays to the crowd; calls from the crowd yesterday of "Nice knickers!" and "Rickie Stewart!" elicited a tip of the cap from him every time.

He signs autographs for free the way Pete Rose does getting paid for it, and he loves the camera as much as it loves him.

From Pinehurst, the game could wish for no better story . . . unless it is Rory.

McIlroy was the hottest golfer on the planet in 2012, but a change in management, in equipment, in country (he moved from Northern Ireland to Florida) and in his love life resulted in massive instability. Nike's newest horse stumbled out of the gate in 2013, but, after his breakup with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki last month, he won at the prestigious BMW Championships in Europe. He has eight other worldwide top-10 finishes in 13 starts in since December - he hasn't finished worse than 25th - and, so, McIlroy is poised to run down Scott.

Certainly, Scott is elegant and accomplished, but McIlroy's raw athleticism and rawer sincerity connect him better with the public. McIlroy is recognized as one of the most marketable athletes on the planet.

So is Mickelson . . . but Mickelson will turn 44 on Monday.

McIlroy is 19 years younger.

Spieth is only 20, but it's hard to tell.

He won the John Deere in July and has since picked up seven top-four finishes, including runner-up at the Masters, and fourth at The Players Championship.

He doesn't crush it like Rickie and Rory, who are both about 5-9, but, at 6-1, Spieth's slender frame has power potential. And, as he has shown in his 18 months as a professional, this Texan who led Texas to an NCAA title has developed every facet of the game.

That's because Spieth breathes golf the way Tiger did. Among the young guns, Spieth might have the best staying power; and, as a marketer, he wears Under Armour, the hottest apparel brand among young people. Under Armour stock rose more than 85 percent over the past year.

McIlroy once devoted that sort of energy to his game, which has surged since the breakup with Wozniacki, he said. Fowler never has been accused of letting golf obscure his other passions.

If any of the three rises to rule the game, he would have a wonderful supporting cast.

Matt Kuchar, wonderfully consistent the past 2 years, has a brilliant smile, but no edge, and no majors. Justin Rose, who won the Open at Merion last year, crumpled under the weight of the accomplishment. Both are in their 30s, and neither moves much product.

Keegan Bradley, the 2011 PGA Championship winner and Mickelson's blue-eyed protégé, is 28, and 1-under. Kaymer, the 2010 PGA champ and a former No. 1, is a soft-spoken, 29-year-old German.

They played well yesterday, but they weren't wearing knickers.

"Just thought it was fitting, that it was cool I was in a position to do it," said Fowler, who got a thumbs-up and smile from Mickelson in the locker room.

Rest assured, Rickie's shortpants will hit the shelves soon - further evidence that image remains everything.

Fowler peaked at No. 18 in the world in June 2012, but now, ranked 39th in the world, he is aware he could drive his brands forward with a few big wins - and enhance the game's profile at the same time.

"Yeah. I've been hanging around the 30s," he said, eyes downcast.

As for the outfit, it wasn't quite perfect, either. A baseball cap and sneaker-style golf shoes detract from the overall look; it would have been better with saddle shoes and a Paddy cap, but Fowler said he worried about how his outsized Cobra and Puma logos would look on a smaller chapeau.

Fowler went to Puma and asked the company to create the knickers outfit months ago. He won't wear it today, he said, or ever again.

He won't have to.

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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