OLD SCHOOL

3 WISE MEN, 2 TAT­TOOS AND MIL­LEN­NIAL MAN RICKIE FOWLER

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Jaime Diaz

Three wise men, two tat­toos and mil­len­nial man Rickie Fowler.

TANAKA walks out­side the gallery ropes of the pro-am in Scotts­dale, qui­etly aware that most eyes and many cell­phones are on his grand­son, Rickie Fowler. A fe­male voice cries out, “Rickie, be in my sel e!” Fowler, 27, looks up, aligns him­self vis­ually with a bois­ter­ous group, strikes an Ins tag ram-proven pose, await squeals also farm at ion, and move son, golf’ s mil­len­nial man in full. By co­in­ci­dence it’s Wed­nes­day, the day of the week that Tanaka, af­ter re­tir­ing from his ame-cut­ting steel com­pany in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia 24 years ago, would set aside to give his then-3-year-old grand­son the choice be­tween spend­ing a few hours at an In­land Em­pire shing hole or at the rus­ti­cally pure Mur­ri­eta Val­ley Driv­ing Range, learn­ing golf. Be­fore the tra­di­tion ended with Fowler go­ing o to Oklahoma State on a golf schol­ar­ship, Tan aka got to a 10-hand­i­cap and his grand­son was shoot­ing 62s to win high school tour­na­ments. “Good days,” says the 77-year-old in the faint Western twang of­ten de­vel­oped in an area with high-desert back­drops favoured by Hol­ly­wood for cow­boy movies. “Rickie took all our quar­ters on the putting green, and he found out he had a gift. It was won­der­ful to watch.”

The man called Taka by fam­ily and friends is lean and spry, wear­ing hand-medown Puma-lo­goed golf shirts from a cer­tain three-time PGA Tour win­ner that hap­pen to t him pretty well. He and his wife, Jean­nie, get to about half a dozen of their grand­son’s tour­na­ments a year, al­though it has got harder to see Rickie as his gal­leries have grown. This pro-am should af­ford some clearer views, as well as al­low him ac­cess in­side the ropes if he chooses.

But Tanaka stays out­side them, sit­ting on a portable seat, feel­ing un­easy about be­ing a pos­si­ble dis­trac­tion .“Rickie’ s got a lot of peo­ple he has to at­tend to to­day,” he says. Tanaka even de­clines the priv­i­lege when Fowler reaches the famed par-3 16th hole at TPC Scotts­dale, where the grand­fa­ther could have en­tered the eerily cav­ernous en­clo­sure through the play­ers’ en­trance to get an up-close view of his grand­son get­ting a gla­di­a­tor’s wel­come.

“It’s all right,” Tanaka says. “What I re­ally like is to see how he treats all the lit­tle ones who run up to him wear­ing or­ange with the big caps. He just has the touch with kids, and he knows it gives him the chance to mo­ti­vate them to some­thing bet­ter, not just golf.” Tanaka was es­pe­cially proud to learn that Fowler had hon­oured his com­mit­ment to put on a ju­nior clinic for The First Tee of San Diego the Mon­day af­ter win­ning in Abu Dhabi, go­ing from plane to tee in 18 hours cov­er­ing 14 000 kilome- tres. “True golfers give back,” Tanaka says.

For all of Fowler’s ash – he’s ex­pand­ing golf’s fash­ion bound­aries to in­clude high-tops with an­kle straps un­der skinny- t jog­gers – at his core, he’s old school. When his fre­quent prac­tice-round part­ner and friend Phil Mick­el­son pub­licly crit­i­cised Tom Watson in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the US team’s lat­est loss of the Ry­der Cup, Fowler nobly stood up for his largely aban­doned cap­tain. When Fowler won in Abu Dhabi in Jan­uary, he sent cham­pagne to the me­dia room, à la Tony Lema. Af­ter the vic­tory lifted him to No 4 in the world, Fowler re­sisted the me­dia’s urg­ing to de­clare The Big Three of Jor­dan Spi­eth, Ja­son Day and Rory McIl­roy was now The Big Four. “We’ve got to take care of a ma­jor,” Fowler said, “and then maybe I can join the crew.” Ac­cord­ing to the tour­na­ment di­rec­tor of the John Deere Clas­sic, which Fowler has skipped the past ve years, he even says “no” with a well-man­nered em­pa­thy. “Rickie was brought up in a hum­ble home where he was never crowned,” says Clair Peter­son, “and it shows.”

El­derly men­tors have mat­tered. The first was Tanaka, his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, who as a young boy was taken with his fam­ily to a World War II Ja­panese in­tern­ment camp in Wy­oming, dis­placed from Pomona, Cal­i­for­nia, where his fa­ther had a small poul­try busi­ness af­ter em­i­grat­ing from Ja­pan.

“I was so young, I didn’t un­der­stand the hard­ship,” Tanaka says. “Even af­ter the war, we weren’t al­lowed to come back to Cal­i­for­nia for two years and ended up go­ing to New York state. My fa­ther was able to keep a busi­ness go­ing and bring us back, but some of our friends lost ev­ery­thing. My par­ents hardly ever men­tioned it, and I never talked to Rickie about it.”

It’s why he was sur­prised and moved when his grand­son had Tanaka’s name in Ja­panese tat­tooed on the in­side of his left bi­ceps. “I thought, Wow, that’s a ten­der place; had to hurt,” he laughs be­fore be­com­ing emo­tional. “Rickie did that with a deep feel­ing. It touched me pretty good.”

Tanaka is dis­mis­sive of the idea that his grand­son was the bene ciary of any spe­cial wis­dom from “Wed­nes­days with Taka.”

“I would pick him up at 2 o’clock on a school day, and we just did things to­gether,” he says. “He didn’t talk much, mostly just watched. When we shed, he did ev­ery­thing right, and he had that pa­tience where he didn’t mind if he didn’t catch any­thing. In golf, we were both begin­ners, but he could hit the ball, and he could con­cen­trate, and he had drive. Those things came from his par­ents (Rod and Lynn Fowler), not me.”

Fowler says his grand­fa­ther un­der­es­ti­mates his in­flu­ence: “Be­ing around him gave me an at­ti­tude to­wards life. He’s al­ways in a good mood. He loves hav­ing peo­ple around him. He treats peo­ple the right way. Loves life. He’s just . . . happy. It’s the way I try to be.”

Tanaka made sure to keep his dis­tance from Rickie’s de­vel­op­ment in golf. Fowler played in his rst tour­na­ments at 4½,and at 7 he be­gan tak­ing lessons at the Mur­ri­eta range from Barry McDonnell, whose deep roots in the game em­anated from his grand­fa­ther, John Gil­holm, from North Berwick, Scot­land, who served as the head

pro at the Coun­try Club of New Bed­ford in Mas­sachusetts for al­most 40 years. Af­ter grow­ing up cad­dieing at the club, McDonnell moved to Los An­ge­les, where he was an as­sis­tant pro at now-de­funct Fox Hills Golf Club, fabled for its money games and for be­ing the club where the na­tion’s best black pro­fes­sion­als were granted prac­tice priv­i­leges af­ter the club was pick­eted by pro­tes­tors of the PGA of Amer­ica’s old “Cau­casian only” clause. McDonnell saw all man­ner of self-made top play­ers with idio­syn­cratic swings and de­vel­oped a teach­ing phi­los­o­phy that al­lowed for in­di­vid­ual di er­ences.

McDonnell never used a video cam­era or even align­ment sticks, lead­ing Fowler to say he was taught “like it was 1950 in­stead of 1995.” The two would have long ses­sions un­der a pep­per tree McDonnell picked out from a nurs­ery across the street that be­came “the Ho­gan Tree,” the teacher some­times call­ing the diminu­tive Fowler “Lit­tle Hawk.”

The owner of the range, Bill Teas­dall, had years be­fore bene ted from McDonnell’s teach­ing and life wis­dom af­ter his promis­ing ca­reer as one of the best juniors in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia had foundered in an ex­cess of swing the­ory.

“Barry would say he wanted to make sure what hap­pened to me would not hap­pen to Rick,” Teas­dall says. “He didn’t change his loop at the top, say­ing, ‘That’s how he nds the ball.’ He was al­ways en­cour­ag­ing and pos­i­tive. He’d say things like, ‘Okay, Rick, 18th tee at Au­gusta. Need a high cut. Can you do it?’ And Rick would bear down and say, ‘I can do it.’ Barry would tell me, ‘Two things I’m go­ing to do with that kid. Stay out of the way of his tal­ent.And build a great golf mind.’ ”

The sec­ond part meant pre­par­ing Fowler for the star­dom McDonnell was sure he would achieve. “Barry could see Rick was one of those spe­cial guys who can just at do it, and he be­lieved he would achieve a lot in the game,” Teas­dall says. “He’d seen a lot of good play­ers, and he stud­ied great ath­letes, es­pe­cially box­ers. At Fox Hills, he had a reg­u­lar game with Joe Louis. Barry used to say, ‘Show me a su­per­star, and I’ll show you a tragedy.’ He would quote Ge­orge Eifer­man, a for­mer Mr Uni­verse he was friends with, who said, ‘Tal­ent is God-given; be hum­ble. Fame is man-given; be thank­ful. Con­ceit is self-given; be care­ful.’ All that is in­side of Rick. He never got cocky, and he’s never changed.”

But when McDonnell be­came se­ri­ously ill from heart prob­lems at the start of 2011, even­tu­ally pass­ing at 75 in May of that year, Fowler, who had been PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010, hit a pro­longed lull, with only 14 top 10s in 69 events through 2013. “That was very hard,” says Fowler, who has a tat­too of McDonnell’s sig­na­ture on his left wrist. “He was sup­posed to cad­die for me in the Par 3 at the Masters, and he couldn’t make it. It wasn’t like I had some­one to turn to. It was a bit of search­ing as far as when I reached the max of where I was go­ing with what I was do­ing.”

HAR­MON’S IN­FLU­ENCE

En­ter Butch Har­mon at the end of 2013.The two were fa­mil­iar with each other from Fowler’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in nu­mer­ous prac­tice rounds with Mick­el­son and Dustin John­son. With a teach­ing ap­proach he sum­marises as “the ball is my barom­e­ter,” Har­mon’s meth­ods shared much in com­mon with McDonnell’s, but with an added so­phis­ti­ca­tion born from years of hon­ing the swings of the best play­ers in the world.

Know­ing that Fowler’s tech­nique de­pended too much on his su­perb but not in­fal­li­ble ath­letic tim­ing to drop the shaft into the cor­rect downswing plane, Har­mon has fo­cused on re­duc­ing the size of the loop. Fowler’s backswing has be­come more ver­ti­cal (the ac­tion still be­ing grooved by a now-fa­mil­iar elon­gated take­away as a pre-shot wag­gle), mak­ing it less likely the shaft drops be­hind him on the downswing. It was that move, along with Fowler’s propen­sity for ag­gres­sive­ness (never dis­cour­aged by McDonnell) that led to Fowler mak­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of driv­ing and ap­proach-shot er­rors, par­tic­u­larly penalty re­sults, for such a highly ranked player, as quanti ed by sta­tis­ti­cal an­a­lyst Peter San­ders of ShotByShot.com.

The more e cient ac­tion has brought Fowler in­creased club­head speed and more length. In­stead of bad rounds pro­duc­ing mid-70s scores that took him out of tour­na­ments, they be­came man­age­able enough to keep him in con­tention.

Fowler made a break­through in the ma­jors in 2014, with four top- ve nishes. How­ever, he was win­less and nished eighth on the money list. Spurred on by Har­mon, whose great­est strength as a coach is prob­a­bly in­still­ing self-be­lief, Fowler jumped a level in 2015, win­ning the Play­ers, the Deutsche Bank and the Scot­tish Open. And this year Fowler is o to the best start of his ca­reer.

“Rickie is a joy to be around be­cause he loves the game and all the talk­ing and jok­ing and friend­ship that goes with it,” Har­mon says, “but when it’s time to work, he’s a great lis­tener, and he ab­sorbs things very fast, which is a mark of tal­ent. What he’s shown me is that he truly wants to be the best. He’s proven in the tour­na­ments he’s won and the play­ers he’s beaten that he’s got it in him. At Abu Dhabi, he was paired the rst two rounds with Jor­dan and Rory, and I nee­dled him a lit­tle: ‘They’re not even talk­ing about you.’ He kind of came back at me and said, ‘I’ll get them to no­tice me. ’And he did. Right now all I see is a player who is go­ing to keep get­ting bet­ter.”

If so, it dra­mat­i­cally in­creases Fowler’s chances of win­ning ma­jors. As he pre­pares for the fu­ture, high­lighted this year by Au­gusta, Oak­mont, Troon and Bal­tus­rol, he bol­sters his con

dence with scenes of the past. “I think about the driv­ing range all the time,” says Fowler, who now lives in Florida. “Walk­ing there from el­e­men­tary school, mid­dle school, high school, or spend­ing the whole day there in the sum­mer. I think about my times there with my grandpa, and all the times with Barry. I still go there some­times when I’m back home, and when I get un­der that tree, it’s like, I can’t hit it bad. It’s a spe­cial place for me. Old school.”

Rickie Fowler with his grand­fa­ther, Yu­taka Tanaka.

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