Rickie Fowler stepped out of the clubhouse and into the darkness Tuesday morning, not because he couldn't wait to get his rookie season started, but to beat the crowd at the first tee in the PGA Tour's first full-field event of the year.

"I can't even see," Fowler said.

Brightness shouldn't be a problem for the 21-year-old Californian, at least the first few months.

Every year, the spotlight is on at least one rookie who has impeccable credentials and the potential to be the next rival to Tiger Woods, with expectations that it will happen sooner rather than later. Considering the plight of Woods, sooner is looking even better these days.

By definition, Rory McIlroy is a PGA Tour rookie this year and he already is No. 10 in the world.

As far as newcomers are concerned, the tag falls to Fowler.

He already has made the cover of one golf magazine and has been profiled in just about all of them. Not bad for a kid who will be making only his ninth PGA Tour start this week in the Sony Open.

Does he deserve it?

"I don't make that decision," Fowler said.

He does not show a false sense of humility by ignoring the high expectations that follow him. He reads. Most times, he likes what he reads. Then he tugs that painter's cap over his mop of brown hair, settles in quickly over the ball and bashes it.

There is a reason for the hype.

Fowler has been very good for a long time, as a junior, in high school and through his two seasons at Oklahoma State. He played on two Walker Cup teams and only lost once in eight matches. And what really drives the expectations are two months last fall, when he accepted an exemption to Las Vegas with hopes of staying fresh until Q-school arrived.

Fowler birdied his last hole to tie for seventh, earning a spot in the next PGA Tour event at the Fry's.com Open in Arizona. He wound up in a three-way playoff there, losing to a birdie by Troy Matteson. The money earned allowed him to skip the first two stages of Q-school, and he breezed through what some consider the toughest six days in golf to earn his PGA Tour card.

"I exceeded expectations," Fowler said when asked to explain why everyone was making a fuss over him. "And I exceeded my own."

The trick now is to stay part of the conversation.

Hanging a "can't miss" label is always dangerous in a game where players miss a lot more than they make. No one has to look terribly far into history to find examples of that.

Remember Jason Day?

He was 18 when he won on the Nationwide Tour, then spent that offseason in Australia talking about his quest to take down Woods as No. 1 in the world. Day was sure Woods knew who he was. He even said jokingly that he might go to Woods' house to introduce himself.

Day still might emerge as a top player. As a rookie, he didn't even keep his card.

David Gossett won the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, won his first year on tour and hasn't been heard from since. Casey Wittenberg was supposed to be the next big thing, especially after his tie for 13th in the 2004 Masters as an amateur. He didn't make it to the PGA Tour until last year, then didn't keep his card.

It's barely worth mentioning Ty Tryon, who earned his card at Q-school while still in high school. If he has accomplished anything lately, no one was watching. The rookie of the year in 2009 was Marc Leishman of Australia, and there's a good chance no one even knew who he was until he made it to the Tour Championship.

So when Fowler was touted as the "leading candidate" for rookie of the year, it's worth noting that 19 others can say the same thing.

The skill is not in question.

Fowler appears to possess all the qualities of a veritable star, including a stubborn side to get the most out rounds that offer much less than that. Dustin Johnson, who made it through Q-school his first try in 2007 and has won on tour each of his first two seasons, played nine holes with Fowler on Tuesday. He likes what he sees, and it's nothing new. They were teammates in the Walker Cup.

"He's definitely got the game, and he's got the head to compete," Johnson said.

Even so, Johnson knows better than most what to expect.

"This will be his toughest year," Johnson said. "The level of competition is not even comparable to what you face in college. You can be the best junior in the world and might not make it out here. I don't think that will be the case with Rickie."

Fowler seems to understand what awaits _ the grind of playing a full schedule for the first time, on new courses in strange cities and only have a day or two to get ready for it all. He has a big brother in Tom Pernice, Jr., who lives is Fowler's hometown, which will help.

And his goals appear moderate, which is a good start. He figures he can remain part of the conversation by making cuts and getting into contention.

"It's tough to be in contention every week," Fowler said. "There's not many guys who can do that. You can't always be 'on.' You slap it around some weeks and try to get away with it the best you can. The ultimate goal for the year is keeping your card."

Fowler is capable of winning at Waialae, or any other tournament this year.

He might not win at all.

"You just let things take care of themselves," Charles Howell III said. "The thing is, everyone wants results now. The key is to be patient, because golf is such a long career."