CHARLOTTE — Rickie Fowler’s love for golf is almost eclipsed by the affection he has for another sport involving a little more risk — getting airborne while riding a dirt bike.
A year removed from winning the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club for what remains his only victory on the PGA Tour, Fowler still gets amped talking about the noise, speed and power that comes from racing an off-road motorcycle.
That’s a different vibe that he gets from walking up the 18th fairway at Quail Hollow — where the Wells Fargo Championship begins Thursday — or among the azaleas at Augusta National.
“There’s still nothing I love more than being in the air,” said Fowler, 24, who was riding a bicycle without training wheels when he was 2. “I’ve always liked speed and things on wheels, going out there and putting it all out there, being on the edge.”
Dirt bike racing eventually gave way to golf for Fowler. But he’s managed to bring a bit of an X-Games-style edge to the PGA Tour, whether it’s from the multi-colored outfits he favors to the hilarious “Golf Boys” videos he stars in.
When Fowler slipped on the blue blazer that comes with winning the Wells Fargo Championship last year, it produced a memorable fashion statement: it was worn over the all-orange outfit he traditionally wears on Sunday to honor his alma mater, Oklahoma State.
Before he got to Stillwater, Fowler grew up in the small southern California town of Murrieta, where he had other interests aside from golf.
Most notably, he loved riding his dirt bike through the hills and over the bumps in the nearby desert. Fowler’s affection for the sport came naturally: his father Rod won Mexico’s Baja 1000 off-road race in 1986.
One day when Fowler was 14, he went over that edge, breaking his foot in a dirt bike accident. That ended his competitive career in that sport.
Motorsports still intrigue Fowler. He spent part of his week off between the Masters and last weekend’s tournament near New Orleans at a motocross event in Austin, Texas. When he arrived in Charlotte this week for the Wells Fargo Championship, he joined NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne on Monday for a go-kart race in Mooresville, followed by a chipping golf competition.
“I still ride mountain bikes and do some jumping on dirt bikes now and then,” Fowler said. “Just not as much. I don’t want to live life too cautiously. I mean, you can step off a curb and twist your ankle.”
‘Don’t make things more complicated’
Luckily for Fowler, golf had always been at least as important to him as dirt bike riding.
He began playing at age 3. By the time he was 7, he told his parents he wanted to some day play on the PGA Tour. When he was 14, he won the California state juniors championship.
Fowler’s golf coach was Barry McDonnell, a third-generation Scot who didn’t believe in using video to teach his pupils. McDonnell, who died in 2011, worked with Fowler at the Murrieta Valley Golf Range. McDonnell took no short cuts.
“He was an old-school kind of teacher,” said Fowler. “For him, it was all about getting you on the range and working on your fundamentals, looking at your ball flight, what went wrong. He made the game simple for me. That’s always something I can think back on: Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be.”
Having fun for charity
Fowler’s long hair, flat-brim hat and neon-bright wardrobe make him one of golf’s more recognizable figures. He is also one of the “Golf Boys,” a group that includes fellow pros Hunter Mahan, Ben Crane and Bubba Watson that has made two tongue-in-cheek, humorous music videos (check them out on YouTube).
The Golf Boys videos help raise money for charitywater.org, which helps construct clean water wells in Ethiopia.
“The main focus of ‘Golf Boys’ was the charity aspect of it,” said Fowler. “We’re helping give kids in Africa some fresh water, which is something we don’t have to worry about here at home.”
Lower back trouble
Fowler’s Quail Hollow victory remains the only PGA Tour triumph of his five-year pro career.
He stayed hot after leaving Charlotte last year, tying for second at the Players Championship a week later, then finishing tied for fifth at the Colonial two weeks after that.
He was playing as well as anybody on tour; good enough, he hoped, to win a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. But Fowler soon began to notice a pain in his lower back — and it didn’t go away.
“I’ve always put a lot of stress on my lower back with my swing,” he said. “It finally … flared. By that time, it’s in the middle of the season and there’s no time to heal, no chance to take any time off.”
Playing in near-constant pain, Fowler struggled the rest of the season, playing particularly poorly at the majors — 41st at the U.S. Open, 31st at the British Open and missing the cut at the PGA Championship. He didn’t make the Ryder Cup team.
He used the offseason to rest and rehab his back.
“I’m swinging better now and the back is healthier,” he said. “I can go out and swing normally and play without taking Advil or any other kind of medication.”
He’s working his way back into form this season. He tied for third at Bay Hill in March, but hasn’t backed that up with much since, tying for 38th at the Masters and 32nd last week.
For now, Fowler is happy to be back at Quail Hollow. He particularly likes the homemade donuts in the clubhouse.
“I will be consuming a few of those when I get there,” he said.
But he will also be working toward that second tour victory — one he hopes would be followed by many more.
“Quail Hollow is always going to be a special spot for me and winning there gave me a little more credibility,” he said. “But I want to be a multiple winner on the PGA Tour. I’d rather look back in 20 years and see that I’ve got 10, 15 or 30 wins on the tour. Then I’d really think of that first one as being really special.”