Rickie Fowler.
Rickie Fowler. SMP Images - Jos Linckens (golfsupport.nl)

Fowler fancies Open chances

AS THE young man leading America’s charge of the bright brigade into this 140th Open Championship, Rickie Fowler was not too difficult to spot yesterday. Resplendent in a typically garish costume, the 22-year-old showed he isn’t about to hide in the Kent undergrowth as the home hopes go marching by.

For the first time, the United States have gone five majors without a win. Their inferiority is spelt out in the rankings. They have one member of the world’s top five. Meanwhile, Europe boasts the top four. One can barely see those Stars and Stripes under all that blue and gold.

Fowler was honest enough to admit as much and, after his first round on Sandwich’s famous links, he spoke of his country’s determination to redress the balance. “The Europeans have given us a kick up the butt to step up,” Fowler said. “The Europeans are playing well right now, which doesn’t irritate us but does motivate us. It’s a good rivalry between us. We don’t hate them, we just want to beat them.”

The Californian kid may just present the biggest threat. True, after 20 months as a pro he hasn’t won yet, but he has impressed to the extent that he is talked about as “America’s Rory”. Corey Pavin showed his admiration by choosing him for a Ryder Cup wild card over so many established names last year. The selection was vindicated when he produced a heroic fight back from four down with four to play against Eduardo Molinari. Pavin had been seduced not only by his performances on the PGA Tour, but also by his Open debut in 2010.

Nobody at St Andrews played or scored any better than Fowler in the final three rounds. In fact, from the Friday onwards Fowler “won” the tournament. “I knew I must have been close,” he said, when told of the stat. “The problem was that opening 79 set me back. Actually I didn’t play that badly in the first round. I made a triple and a double late on to ruin my round. But it was a good tournament. It was nice to get to the weekend and have a top-15 finish.”

Fowler’s sights are aimed rather higher this time around. He might have a haircut which suggests he should be in a boy band - indeed, with his fellow Americans Bubba Watson and Ben Crane he has recently recorded a charity single - but he believes he is man enough to challenge in the majors. Another 22-year-old has convinced him of that.

“It was inspiring to see a fellow young player do what Rory McIlroy did and win the US Open by eight shots,” Fowler said. ” You know, he’s a step or two ahead of me right now in professional golf. He turned pro a little bit younger than I did and he’s off and running and doing incredibly well. Congressional was fun to watch and showed me what was possible.”

Fowler is actually five months older than McIlroy, but delayed joining the professional ranks until two years later, after finishing his studies at Oklahoma State University. A brilliant amateur, Fowler did meet and beat McIlroy at the 2007 Walker Cup on the latter’s home turf of Royal County Down. “I played him in alternate shot and won in a good match - but I think he’s done okay since that,” Fowler said with a smirk. “I think he’s put that one behind him.”

For Fowler, that match provided valuable experience of links golf and, since then, the seaside style has emerged as his favourite. That has plenty to do with him being a natural shot-maker and having a unique swing. It is almost impossible to imagine any individual being further removed from that old golfing cliche of the American automaton. “My old coach, Barry McDonnell, died in May,” Fowler said. “I worked with him from when I was seven until I went to college. He was the biggest influence on me. He told me not to rely on him or any other coaches but to work on my own game and figure it out on my own. I like working the ball around and know that if I’m playing well if I can hit almost every shot on command. That’s why I like playing links golf. It gives you the option to hit different shots, makes you play different shots. It doesn’t dictate which shot you have to hit.”

His imagination has certainly been captured by Royal St George’s. Fowler had heard all the ghoulish stories of 2003, when the rough was high and gobbled up all balls the notorious, hog-backed fairways generously threw its way. So he was delighted with his discovery yesterday.

“This is a fun course with a lot of character, but there isn’t much rough, it’s pretty light,” he said. “Obviously driving it into the fairway is an advantage, but if it’s not blowing very much, you can definitely make birdies out there. I’m looking forward to the next few days and learning a bit more about the course. Shoot four scores under par and you’ll have a chance. I’m confident I can play well here.”

The oldies had better watch out. Them and Europe.

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