The very best of enemies

The last thing Rory McIlroy will be doing as the Race to Dubai heads towards its climax next month is to look over his shoulder at a player ranked 1,057 places below him in the world rankings.

Rickie Fowler, left, admires Rory McIlroy's putt, but the American has the game to have the world begin to admire him.
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The last thing Rory McIlroy will be doing as the Race to Dubai heads towards its climax next month is to look over his shoulder at a player ranked 1,057 places below him in the world rankings. The Northern Irishman makes his debut in the Volvo World Match Play Championship today with an opening tie against US Masters champion Angel Cabrera on Spain's Costa Del Sol. On the other side of the Atlantic a few hours later, another 20 year-old, Rickie Fowler, tees off in Viking Classic, one of the lesser PGA Tour events but one he hopes will give him a ticket to much bigger things next year.

In terms of current status, the two are worlds apart, McIlroy having soared to No 16 in the world rankings this year, with Fowler still barely showing on the radar at No 1,073. But in a year which has high- lighted golf's rich vein of young talent - and McIlroy has stood out as the rising European star with the best potential to go all the way to the top - Fowler has emerged as the American who could match him all the way there.

While it may be too early to say with any assurance that we have the makings here of a kind of rivalry golf craves, and which has been absent through years of dominance by Tiger Woods, the signs are good. Throw Danny Lee, Anthony Kim and Ryo Ishikawa into the mix and we have a new generation of exciting young golfers who can illuminate the game in the years ahead. For the uninitiated, Fowler is the son of a 100 per cent native American mother and a former dirt bike champion who was introduced to golf as a three-year-old when his grandfather took him to a driving range in his native Murrieta, California.

It was there that he met coach Barry McDonnell, who had learned teaching skills from his own Scottish immigrant grandfather. He encouraged young players to become creative shot makers, and to stand up for themselves, rather than run to their instructor any time things started to go wrong. Fowler learned well, and by 2007 was the world's No 1 ranked amateur golfer. He also achieved something that not even Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Phil Mickelson nor any other player in history had done by becoming the No 1 college golfer in the US in his first year at Oklahoma State.

Making his way on the Nationwide Tour, Fowler lost a play-off to Derek Lamely three months ago and, having delayed his move to the professional ranks to make a second Walker Cup appearance, won all four of his matches to help the US to a comfortable victory over Great Britain and Ireland. Two weeks ago, playing in his first PGA Tour event as a professional on a sponsor's invitation, he finished seventh in the Justin Timberlake tournament.

The top-10 spot earned him a place in last week's Fry's.com Open just outside Phoenix, Arizona where he produced some outstanding golf to get into another play-off. While he lost out again, this time to Troy Matteson, Fowler looks every inch a winner, a player capable of using his outstanding stroke making talents to go all the way. He has already taken on something of a cult figure status in America, where he has been branded "the player to make Rory McIlroy cry".

This says as much about the impact made by McIlory during his first excursion to US golf earlier in the year as it does of the enormous expectations that Fowler has inspired. The immediate priority for him is to win enough money over the next four days to climb from his current 135th place on the PGA Tour money list to get into the top 125. This would give him full exempt status for next year, and see him avoid the dreaded final stages of the Tour qualifying school next month.

Whichever route he takes he knows exactly where he is heading and, having seen a good deal of him this year, I am convinced he is the genuine article. Basically, he is an old fashioned type of player. He plays a wider range of shoots than even Woods, Mickelson or Sergio Garcia, and this is what makes him stand out. Small in stature, and dwarfed by many of his contemporaries, he is, nevertheless, longer than average off the tee, has his own, unique swing characterised by a quick tempo, and is blessed with a magical touch on and around the greens.

You watch some players and you feel straight away that they sense the pace and speed of a putt, as Ben Crenshaw did, and Fowler has got that gift. Comparisons with McIlroy, and talk of a great rivalry emerging between them on Tour and on Ryder Cup duty, are as inevitable as is the certainty that both are destined for much greater things. Rory's victory in the Dubai Desert Classic back in February was an appetiser for many more big helpings of success which will surely follow. While he is still chasing his second win as a professional, runner's up spot at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and a tie for third place alongside Lee Westwood at the US PGA Championship underlined his class.

He is immensely talented, although I don't think he gets the best out of himself yet. He believes he can do anything he wants, and that is something he needs to suppress from time to time. Top players employ a degree of safety when they hit shots into greens with tight pin positions. Even with a wedge in his hands, Tiger aims on the safe side of the hole. I do not see that from Rory right now, but that is the thing he must do to gain the extra consistency he needs to go to the next level.

Former Tour player Philip Parkin (www.philparkin.com) is now a member of the TV commentary team with the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US. @Email:pparkin@thenational.ae