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In the minutes before a playoff in front of their parents, peers, golf nuts, wide-eyed kids and the giddy Quail Hollow Club membership, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy shared a moment on the practice green. Friendly rivals since the 2007 Walker Cup, the young lions approached one another and exchanged a soul handshake so hearty it brought wide grins to them both.
They couldn't have been happier to be in the other's company and about to showcase their mutually audacious skills. Or, to borrow from the hip-hop genre of their generation, game recognize game. The Roman numeral clock above the clubhouse read 5:49 p.m. The PGA Tour was about to enter new territory.
Aaron Baddeley corralled his family and headed to the 18th green. Rosie and Gerry McIlroy found a spot on a hillside behind the green. "It's good for you guys to write about," Gerry said, aware that a story with dueling 23-year-old phenoms moves the needle.
The Wells Fargo Championship was bearing witness to a moment that had the markings of something special—and permanent. Fowler and McIlroy looked transcendent, moving their golf balls this way and that, carrying themselves like champions.
"I got to play in the Tiger Woods era," said Robert Garrigus, taking it all in, "and now it looks as if I'm going to be playing in the Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy era."
In a three-man playoff that included D.A. Points, the 2011 Pebble Beach winner, Fowler easily had the most at stake. Fowler's mom, Lynn, knew it. "After all the years of this, I've learned to stay pretty calm," she said, "but [in] a playoff you feel as if you're going to throw up every time they swing the club."
It has been nearly three years since Fowler turned pro, flashing the talent that pushed him to leave Oklahoma State after only two years. In his second Tour event as a pro, in 2009, he lost in a playoff to Troy Matteson at the Frys.com Open. In 2010 he was runner-up in Phoenix (where he took heat for laying up on the 15th) and at the Memorial, thanks to a final-round 73 that left him three back.
Even as other youngsters hoisted trophies—Jason Day at the '10 Nelson, Keegan Bradley at the '11 Nelson and PGA, McIlroy around the world—Fowler's Q rating rose. He signed endorsement deals for clubs and clothes, filmed a golf music video that went viral and became the closest thing golf has to the Biebs.
Some of the hype was of Fowler's own doing. He has worn loud clothes since high school. He rides dirt bikes. He is comfortable in a flat-brimmed hat turned backward. But the longer he went without a victory, the more critics wondered if he could close the deal.
"This is who I am," Fowler said on Sunday. "I don't want to be anyone who I'm not and don't want to be marketed in any way that doesn't represent me. I have some great sponsors and a good partnership with Puma, who helped show who I am on the course."