Connecticut Falls in Love With Rickie Fowler

Seated on the sloping hillside that rises above the 18th green like a grass amphitheater, is one of many ways to experience the excitement and drama of the Travelers Championship.

I've had the privilege of playing TPC River Highlands several times, and 18th is, by any standards, a dynamic and memorable finishing hole, both from a golfer's perspective and for the fans who flock to it during the annual PGA tournament.

I spent a couple of hours on the grassy hillside today, surrounded by hundreds of other spectators and chatted with dozens of them as the afternoon progressed.

Some were avid golf fans who knew every player by name and had a corresponding story for each one. Others were recreational golfers who didn't know many of the players but who clearly knew the game... and tended to analyze the trajectory of each shot and comment profusely on the strategy behind it. There were also many spectators who knew very little about golf or golfers, but were simply there to enjoy an outdoor sporting event.

The 18th green is a popular place for families, because the players... having completed their rounds... will often hand out balls, sign hats or throw their glove into the crowd on their way up the hill to the scoring tent... and there's always a group of kids clamoring for such items.

At one point I found myself speaking to a Dad whose forlorn six-year-old had been having no luck collecting player souvenirs and was getting quite discouraged. Just as he was telling me this I noticed spectator attention shifting towards the fairway and in the murmurs of the crowd detected numerous mentions of "Rickie Fowler", punctuated by exclamations containing the words "Wow!" and "Orange!". Soon the chatter organized itself into a crescendo of Rick-EEE, Rick-EEE as Rickie Fowler's approach shot landed solidly on the green. At that point even those who'd never heard of the colorful young golfer from Murrieta, California took notice.

Actually, he would have been difficult totally impossible not to notice, because here's the thing: no matter how many time you hear about it... or see it in pictures... the brightness of Rickie Fowler Orange is way brighter than you could have ever imagined.

After absorbing the scene, I turned back to the father and son, now transfixed on the whimsical looking golfer walking up towards the green. "It would be great to get his autograph" the six-year-old said, then shrugged in resignation when he noticed that the team of little barbarians kids lining the player's path had staked out their positions and moved into attack mode.

But this was Rickie Fowler, and one of the things that makes him so magical is how generous he is with fans. The day before I'd seen him spend over a half hour, in relentless afternoon heat and humidity, signing autographs at the putting green. He was the only player doing so, and kept at it till he got through the entire crowd. In fact, just as he was finally through and walking towards the stairway, someone alerted him to a fan in a wheelchair who'd just arrived at the green. Rickie ran back and signed the man's hat.

So I suggested to the Dad and son that if they made their way up to the putting area after Rickie finished his round they'd probably be able to get that prized autograph. When I met them on their way out, the little boy was beaming and proudly showed me a golf ball signed by his new new favorite golfer. The Dad thanked me saying that meeting Rickie had made his son's first golf tournament memorable and fun.

I heard similar Rickie Fowler stories from other people I met at the course and from friends around the state who attended the tournament. It's clear that his friendly, accessible personality and distinctive style... not to mention his game... is great for golf. He finished just four back from winner Bubba Watson yestersday and no one doubts that he'll soon be the one lifting the trophy.

One of the highlights of my week at the Travelers was spending time with Rickie Fowler's Uncle, Burt Tanaka, and Grandfather Taka. It may sound like a cliche, but they're the kind of people you immediately feel you've known forever. They're disarmingly open and engaging, and tell great stories about their unique family and the experiences they've had traveling to tournaments across the country and around the world. After meeting them I can clearly see where Rickie's kindness and confidence comes from.

The easygoing young golfer took off for Barrington RI right after The Travelers Championship, to play in the CVS Caremark Charity Classic in Barrington RI and will then head down to Newtown Square, PA for the AT&T National. Meanwhile legions of newly minted CT golf fans will tune into the season's remaining tournaments and you can be sure they'll be scanning their screens for orange.