Buried deep in the dustbins of sports history is the occasion when a jokester first spat out the scathing observation that, “Potential is a French word meaning ‘you aint done nuthin’ yet.’” A label of “potential” is one of the most onerous tags that can be applied to an athlete.
Ask Justin Rose who made headlines as an 18-year old amateur when he tied for 4th at the 1998 Open Championship. With heightened expectations, Rose missed his first 21 professional cuts and made repeated trips to qualifying school before establishing himself on Tour. Furthermore, there is Sergio Garcia who won the Irish Open in 1999 in his 6th start as a 19-year old professional, and then famously dueled Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship that year. The Spaniard has never fulfilled the promise of that tournament and so a solid Top Ten career with more than two dozen victories around the globe add up to tarnished glory in the eyes of many golf fans.
A Burden or Motivator?
The current PGA Tour star to wear the burdening title of “potential” is Rickie Fowler. Fowler taught himself the game as a teenager in California by banging buckets of balls on the range, much as golfing legend Lee Trevino did a half-century before him. In addition, like the Merry Mex, Fowler doesn’t look like most of his golfing brethren who appear to have rolled down an assembly line from old established country clubs. Fowler’s mother is half-Japanese and half Navajo.
After leaving California for college at Oklahoma State University in 2007, Fowler’s blossomed into one of the country’s top amateur players. He won several major amateur tournaments, compiled a 7-1 match record in two Walker Cups, and picked up the Ben Hogan award for the best collegiate golfer in 2008. Fowler, who is known for his eccentric Puma outfits on the golf course, always wears orange on Sundays as a nod to his time as an Oklahoma State Cowboy in Stillwater.
In the fall of 2009, Fowler turned pro and scored a seventh place check in his first tournament and lost in a playoff in his second. In 2010 Ryder Cup captain, Corey Pavin, claimed he had a “gut feeling” and added the 21-year old Fowler to the 12-man international team. At Celtic Manor, Fowler came back from four holes down with six to play to gain a crucial tie and half-a-point for the American side in an unsuccessful bid for the Cup. However, the Ryder Cup introduced Rickie Fowler to the golfing public and the hype machine was set to overdrive.
Proving his Worth
Endorsement deals such as Cobra Golf, deluged the personable Californian but victories did not. He won his first PGA event in Charlotte, North Carolina at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012, outlasting Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points in a three-way playoff. Golf fans were curious whether or not the youngster could finally break through, but expectations were a bit pessimistic, given that Rory was sitting there in the threesome after regulation.
However, it only took one extra hole in the playoff, as Fowler gambled with a 51-degree wedge on the 18th hole at Quail Hollow and emphatically put it four feet from the hole for a birdie to earn the victory. But there was little complementing success on the course and Fowler did not qualify for the 2012 Ryder Cup team.
By 2015, there were enough commercials starring Rickie Fowler and just that single tournament win that Fowler was cited in an anonymous player poll as the Most Overrated Player in Golf. Leading up to that poll, his biggest claim to golfing fame was finishing in the Top Five in all four major tournaments in 2014. However, Fowler answered those overrated claims and won THE PLAYERS Championship, in addition to the Scottish Open, both with wildly entertaining finishes. Check out the final hole in the sudden-death playoff at THE PLAYERS:
Being a Rickie Fowler fan can be a maddening proposition as he seeks to shake the “potential” tag. He has advanced to be the Number Five player in the world and can flip the switch ‘on’ for the birdie machine as fast as any golfer on Tour. But, he can also match Tiger Woods stroke for stroke in being unable to break 80, as he demonstrated when the two were paired in the opening round of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in June. In his last three stroke-play events, the nothing-if-not-inconsistent Fowler has three missed cuts, a first and a second.
Rickie Fowler has been wearing the “potential” label for five years now and to some, its shelf life is coming to an end. There are younger players already in the pipeline for “The Next Big Thing.” This is the time when Fowler will step forward to take his place as a true great player, or settle back into the ranks of extremely well-compensated players for whom it was believed the future held so much more. Only time will tell which way he goes. And if it doesn’t work out for him, he can always fall back on his rapping career with the supergroup Golf Boys: