Updated: May 9, 2012, 3:23 AM ET

Promising potential to Fowler-McIlroy rivalry

Harig By Bob Harig

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Rivalries are tough to come by in golf, try as we might to declare them, push them, wish for them.

Whether Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy go on to be rivals remains to be seen. One tournament victory for Fowler does not instantly make a rivalry. But the possibilities are intriguing.

Their playoff duel on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship -- with 35-year-old D.A. Points a very real spoiler possibility -- was the kind of stuff that leads to such talk.

So does the fact both players are just 23, have played in the Ryder Cup -- for opposite sides (and the Walker Cup, for that matter) -- and are highly regarded, with lofty world rankings and plenty of promise.

McIlroy, of course, is the far more accomplished player. He's got a U.S. Open to his name and a couple of other near-misses in majors. He's been forecast as a star ever since taking low amateur honors at the 2007 British Open. Despite losing to Fowler in a playoff, McIlroy ascended to No. 1 in the world, having traded places with Luke Donald five times since early March.

Fowler also came to the game with plenty of promise, although it's taken him a bit longer to enjoy success. He was a star at Oklahoma State, left after just two years, lost in a playoff as an amateur in a Nationwide Tour event then nearly won in his second PGA Tour event, the Frys.com Open in 2009. He went on to earn his tour card at Q-school, was picked to the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2010, and beat out McIlroy for rookie of the year on the PGA Tour.

"We've always had a great camaraderie, been good buddies," said Fowler, whose South Florida home is now near McIlroy's Florida base. "I definitely respect him as a player, and I feel like he respects me as well. Or at least I hope so.

"But I've had a lot of fun playing against him. We first played against each other at the Walker Cup in '07 and I look forward to playing against him and hopefully having plenty more tournaments like this where we're battling back and forth and there's going to be times where he's going to come out on top and times where I come out on top. I look forward to possibly doing that for a long time."

While McIlroy has five official worldwide victories, Fowler didn't have any until last October, when he captured the obscure Kolon Korean Open. It's a tournament on the OneAsia Tour, several rungs down from the PGA Tour and European Tour.

But in the field was McIlroy, and Fowler shot a final-round 69 to win by six strokes. That victory carries a bit more weight now.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
John D. Simmons/Getty ImagesRory McIlroy might have lost the Quail Hollow playoff to Rickie Fowler, but the Northern Irishman did take over the No. 1 ranking in the world. Fowler jumped up to No. 24 with his Wells Fargo Championship win.

Not that McIlroy has anything to be ashamed of. After a tie for 40th at the Masters -- his only finish outside of the top 11 going back to the PGA Championship -- he shot a final-round 70 to put himself in a playoff. And he was absolutely killing the ball off the tee, routinely hitting drives more than 300 yards.

McIlroy knows a fair bit about expectations and living up to them, so he can relate to Fowler's struggles and success.

"It's great to see," McIlroy said. "He probably has gone through a bit of scrutiny and a lot of pressure trying to get that first win, but now that win is out of the way. Hopefully that'll ease the pressure a little bit. But great to see, especially the way he played that playoff hole. He played to win. He deserved it after that birdie."

As far as rivalries go, there are numerous great young players in the game. There still is just one two-time winner (Hunter Mahan) on the PGA Tour this year, suggesting a parity that is also borne out by 14 consecutive different major championship winners.

But a month ago, we wondered if there might not be a rivalry between Tiger Woods and McIlroy, who are separated by 13 years.

Imagine, then, if Fowler and McIlroy, the same age, with so much time to make history in the game, were to keep this going?

Bubba's Players snub

Bubba Watson is understandably receiving plenty of praise for putting his family first and skipping this week's Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass. Watson cited the desire to spend time with his wife, Angie, and their newborn adopted son, Caleb, as the reason for skipping the PGA Tour's signature event.

The decision is yet another example of how the Players -- while one of the top tournaments -- is not put in the same category as major championships. Watson had just adopted his son when he went off to the Masters. The emotion and the desire to be with his family didn't keep him away from Augusta National. But five weeks later, all of that is the reason for skipping what otherwise is considered one of the best events of the year.

Welcome to the scrutiny that a major champion endures.

Watson has repeatedly cited fatigue since winning the Masters and only grudgingly defended his title in New Orleans because, well, among other things, he has an endorsement deal with tournament sponsor Zurich. That fatigue, however, is mostly of his own doing, as Watson didn't miss a media opportunity in the week following his Masters victory, barely giving himself time to relax and let it soak in.

He might be putting his family first -- and he is enduring a huge, life-changing situation with an adopted child -- but it is hard to envision a player skipping such a big tournament unless he was injured or there was a family illness or emergency. Neither appears to be the case here. Watson has said that rules pertaining to the adoption require that the baby not leave Florida for a period of time -- which is why Angie did not travel to the Masters.

But the TPC Sawgrass is just a short drive from Orlando, with a really nice resort on the property. Mom and baby could have had a great time while dad played in one of the biggest tournaments of the year.

Then again, if Bubba's head isn't into the game right now, perhaps it is best for him to take the time he needs. He knows he's opened plenty of doors for himself with the Masters win. He plans to return at the Memorial Tournament in three weeks, giving himself one more tournament before the U.S. Open.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


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