Fowler and Mcllroy bring their special brand of youthful magic to Celtic Manor
TWO high-octane 'kids' are ready to rev up the Ryder Cup and drive it into a new era at Celtic Manor. Petrol-heads Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, both 21, play golf with a swashbuckling sense of adventure and they'll set the decibel levels soaring even higher this week when they roar into one of sport's most exciting arenas.
Corey Pavin did golf a favour when he followed his "gut feeling" and made Fowler the first PGA Tour rookie in history to receive a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup.
And McIlroy will relish the prospect of winning back the bragging rights from Fowler after the sunshine boy of US golf played a starring role in America's 2007 Walker Cup victory in the Holywood player's back yard at Royal County Down.
The day after that thrilling trans-Atlantic battle, McIlroy and Fowler embarked on distinctly different life paths.
While Fowler enrolled in the US collegiate system at Ohio State, McIlroy opted for the university of life, immediately finding the fast lane to fame and fortune in professional golf.
For those who measure success in money, McIlroy's first three years on Tour have been a roaring success. He's banked €7.27m in prize money, became the youngest player since Sergio Garica to make the world top 10 and has achieved breakthrough wins in Europe and the USA.
McIlroy's outrageous skills thrill the cognoscenti yet also appeal to many who might not normally be excited by golf. One only had to see and hear the wild response of the galleries to his sensational victory march at Quail Hollow last May to recognise the superstar within.
If he has a weakness, it's for high-performance cars. McIlroy has indulged himself with enough supercars to stage a series of Top Gear, progressing from Ferrari through Lamborghini to the 200mph Audi R8 V10 and custom-built Range Rover 'Overfinch' in his garage today.
"I've had 13 cars since turning pro -- not good, is it?" he asks. At least he's got somewhere decent to park them.
McIlroy lives in a six-bedroom house on 13 acres in the picturesque Co Down village of Moneyreagh, where he's installed a state-of-the-art practice facility including a 330-yard driving range.
While he was learning his trade on fairways across all five continents, Fowler was winning awards and national acclaim in the cozy confines of college golf, building life-long friendships and a loyalty which inspires him to wear the OSU Cowboys colours at every opportunity on Tour.
Ian Poulter can relax. Those garish orange outfits which have become Fowler's trademark are not intended as a fashion statement. Neither, one suspects, is the long, unruly hair, which thrusts out like heavy rough from under the large Puma caps he wears.
After winning all four of his matches on his second Walker Cup appearance at Merion last September, Fowler turned professional.
He made an immediate impact, forcing himself into a play-off at his second Tour event, the Frys.com Open, before winning his card in 15th place at the real 'School of Hard Knocks', PGA Qualifying.
Fowler has yet to win as a pro and if he seemed a tad tentative down the stretch on Sunday at Phoenix or blew the lead in the final round at Memorial, the overriding impression from those two second-place finishes is that a breakthrough win is not too far away.
Memorial winner Justin Rose described Fowler as "great company" on the golf course after playing with him in that final round at Muirfield Village.
He really plays like a kid fresh out of college, usually bringing an engaging mix of fun and fearlessness to the fairways.
"I think anyone that's been around him realises he doesn't get bothered by too much," says Fowler's caddie Joe Skoverton, a childhood friend in Southern California.
"A lot of times you don't even see (the nerves) with him. He's joking around, acting like it's just another day. He has so much fun playing golf, which is different from a lot of other people."
With six top-10 finishes in his rookie year, Fowler is already easing into McIlroy's slipstream on the PGA Tour. Yet if he's going places fast in the game, Fowler also shares the young Ulsterman's lust for speed off the course, though on two wheels, not four.
Until his mid-teens, Fowler competed in moto-cross, the sport which made his father Rod famous. Though he doesn't race any more, the youngster still can't resist taking the occasional spin on a trials bike, soaring high off mounds, flying over obstacles and doing dramatic wheelies.
Despite the 10 years between them, he's found a soulmate on Tour in Bubba Watson and with both of them in Pavin's line-up, high jinks are assured in the US team room this week.
Their backgrounds and the route they took into professional golf are markedly different, but McIlroy and Fowler have much in common.
Though Fowler left home to live in Las Vegas last autumn, he remains as close as ever to mum Lynn and dad Rod, who owns his own trucking business in Murietta, as McIlroy is to his parents, Gerry and Rosie. Both have also worked with the same swing coach since childhood.
When skipper Pavin phoned to tell Fowler he'd been picked for Celtic Manor, the youngster actually was playing a computer game with his father. "I'm old-school," says Fowler, whose steady girlfriend Alex Browne (18) is the daughter of Tour pro Olin.
"I get on well with Rickie," says McIlroy. "He's a great guy and a great player. I think it was a good move to give him the pick. He'll bring a lot to the team. I think he'll play well and relish the challenge. He's great under pressure.
"All the players seem to like Rickie. I know Phil Mickelson was pushing for him. When guys like that want you on the team, it's important. The thing about Rickie is you can put him with anybody and he'll be great in the team room."
McIlroy briefly considered taking up a golf scholarship in the US but his heart had always been set on playing professional golf and has absolutely no regrets about taking the plunge in his teens.
"I probably learned more by going on Tour when I was 18 than I might have done by going to college for two years. Doing so much travelling and going to so many difference places was an education in itself," he says.
Even in his early teens, McIlroy always seemed mature well beyond his years but those extra two seasons fending for himself in the professional arena certainly make him appear a lot more self-assured than Fowler.
The Ulsterman isn't afraid to express an opinion, like last year's controversial description of the Ryder Cup as "an exhibition". Right or wrong, he's stuck to his insistence that, as a professional golfer, he'd prefer to win a Major or a World Championship.
Yet, with his suggestion last week that "I don't regret saying it but it wasn't the right thing to say", McIlroy showed a shrewd, if slightly belated grasp of the political implications of his remark about an event which provides the financial lifeblood of the European Tour.
The maturity behind his assessment of the fall from grace of his idol, Tiger Woods, is also impressive.
"Tiger's mistakes are a big warning and a big lesson for me," he says. "I'm sure Tiger regrets everything he did and I expect Wayne Rooney will as well.
"Whatever they were doing, I suppose they thought they'd never get found out but I don't see how men with such a massive image could think like that," adds Rory, a staunch Man United fan.
"I don't mean to take the moral high ground but it's amazing how many people in the spotlight can act with such naivety. Even if you think there's no one around, it shows there's always someone watching or prepared to tell if you step out of line.
"Anyone with a mobile phone can take your picture and post it on the internet in minutes. You have to think about your actions all the time."
For role-models, McIlroy has turned to Spain's tennis star Rafa Nadal, whom he met recently at the US Open at Flushing Meadows.
"I couldn't believe how modest he is after all the success he's had and all the money he has won. He still lives in the same village in Majorca where he grew up and he is still going out with the same girlfriend he has been with for years.
"There are things in his demeanour I'd love to have -- his never-say-die attitude, his willingness to fight for every point. Sometimes I find myself not doing that on the golf course; I let some shots get away too easily.
"I'd like to become a little more like him. After all he has achieved, he still has such desire and drive to succeed."
There certainly have been times this season when McIlroy's usual bouncing gait has been replaced by slumped shoulders but Paul McGinley, his skipper at last year's Vivendi Cup and one of Monty's vice-captains this week, says: "That's Rory's psyche.
"When everything's going well and he gets himself into the mix, there's nobody better," McGinley explains. "Yet he's not the sort of guy to grind it out like Bernhard Langer when things aren't going great.
"You know, that's not a bad way to be. I think I'd prefer to be like Rory. Someone whose highs are very, very high tends to do a lot better in the world rankings and the money list than someone who performs at a steady level."
Like Fowler, the bottom line for McIlroy is having fun on the golf course, which underpins his potent partnership with fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell.
"I think we just enjoy each other's company and make each other laugh.
"If you can enjoy yourself out there and not get caught up too much in everything, that's when you play your best golf. G-Mac and I get on so well, it's fun playing out there," he says.
Yet the fireworks really will fly at Celtic Manor this week if those rising superstars, Rickie and Rory, collide.