PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It didn't take long for Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler to size each other up in a lineup of stars.
They were teenagers in the Walker Cup five years ago at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. The Americans were so loaded that year that eight players from the 10-man team have made it to the PGA Tour and five of them already have won — Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Kyle Stanley, Chris Kirk and Fowler, who won at Quail Hollow last week in a playoff that included McIlroy.
"I felt like he was the best player on that team at the time," McIlroy said. "And he was also the nicest guy."
McIlroy was a little easier to identify, especially since this was a home game. Earlier that summer, he posted a bogey-free opening round at Carnoustie in the British Open and was low amateur. Padraig Harrington, with the claret jug in his arms, predicted greatness for the kid and few disagreed.
"I knew he was one of the top players, and once I got over there," Fowler said, "I knew he was kind of their stud on the team."
They went their separate ways. McIlroy turned pro after the Walker Cup, had a few close calls and finally won 16 months later in Dubai. A year later, he shot 62 in the final round at Quail Hollow for his first PGA Tour title — one day before turning 21 — and then blossomed into a veritable star with his record-setting win at Congressional last summer in the U.S. Open.
McIlroy is back at No. 1 in the world ranking.
"I've definitely watched him, stayed up with his career," Fowler said. "In a way, seeing other young guys like him play well motivates me to play well. In a way, you don't want to be outdone."
Fowler went off to Oklahoma State and didn't turn pro until two years later. Within a few months, he lost in a playoff on the PGA Tour. Fowler waited two years before his first pro win — the Korea Open, with McIlroy as the runner-up — and a little longer before winning on the PGA Tour. In the meantime, he became the first tour rookie to be picked for the Ryder Cup, and won his last four holes to earn a crucial half-point that kept U.S. hopes alive at Celtic Manor.
"I didn't really have much contact with him for those couple years," McIlroy said. "But since he's been out on tour, I feel like it's been a good relationship. I always thought it was just a matter of time before he won. He got into that playoff really early in Arizona just when he first came out here and yeah, it was just a matter of time. He's a great player, and it's good to see that he's broken through."
The connection was clear as ever at Quail Hollow — not just when they were televised having a chat on the putting green before the playoff, but a day earlier on the tee box at the 17th hole.
There was a long wait on the par 3. Fowler was waiting to hit and McIlroy had just walked over from the 16th green. They kept their distance, but as Fowler hit a tight draw over the water and onto the green, he was walking off the tee when he looked back at McIlroy, smiled and nodded his head. McIlroy returned the smile, a couple of kids loving the competition.
A rivalry in the making? Maybe.
Fowler, the same age but two years behind in experience as a pro, still has more trophies to win to be put in the same conversation as McIlroy. They are linked because of their age (both are 23), their exuberance, swings that are powerful and not overly complicated, and refreshingly, their quick pace of play.
They are unfailingly polite. McIlroy's parents taught him at an early age that it doesn't cost anything to be nice. And both have attracted a strong following of fans. Fowler's are easier to spot because they are dressed in orange with the flat-bill caps.
It was a moment that some could have predicted when they were together at the Walker Cup in 2007. And in a broader sense, it was the kind of thing Geoff Ogilvy talked about last year at the Tour Championship.
The subject was Tiger Woods, and whether he could ever get back to the top of his game, and how the competition will respond.
"It will be good," Ogilvy said, "because the top 30 guys he's trying to beat will have fans. Maybe they didn't have time to build that up before, because they never had a chance to win as many tournaments. One guy was winning eight a year. It would be good, though, wouldn't it?"
Here's another way of looking at it: How many kids would there be in those orange outfits if Woods had never gone away?
No doubt, McIlroy and Fowler are part of a youth movement that is making golf more appealing to young people — at least watching golf at tournaments. But for so many years, Woods was such a dominant force that few people ever bothered checking on other players. There was no need to look for anyone else, because Woods was clearly the best. There was Woods and everyone else.
On the range Sunday at Quail Hollow, a group of 21 kids pressed against the ropes to watch Fowler warm up. Ten of them wore his golf cap. Seven of them were dressed in orange, including one kid who was head-to-toe in orange and even wore a plastic mustache.
The importance of Fowler's win was credibility, to show that he is about more than just style. It might be the start of a riveting rivalry with McIlroy for years to come, though that has not developed.
And if Woods gets back to the top of his game, it could get really interesting — the greatest player of his generation taking on kids who weren't around during his greatest wins, now with their own set of fans.
Golf is lacking a clear-cut No. 1 at the moment, something McIlroy hopes to change in the coming months. Woods remains the game's top attraction. Just look at the size of his gallery, the amount of TV coverage he gets. For so long, golf was Woods.
"It's a bit like tennis," McIlroy said. "Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal) is all the general public knows. With Tiger not playing his best, it has spread the spotlight out. And that's a good thing for us."