AUGUSTA, Ga. — The leaderboard says the Masters has become something of an old-timers’ game, and what golf fan wouldn’t sign up for that? Phil Mickelson, 46, is still within striking distance of replacing Jack Nicklaus as the tournament’s oldest champion, and Fred Couples, 57, is still threatening a quarter-century after he caught the break of a lifetime on the devilish bank feeding into Rae’s Creek.
Sergio Garcia? He’s only 37, but he has never won a major and once conceded at Augusta National that he never will and so, you know, it seems like he’s 37 going on 47.
Human nature and win-one-for-the-gimper sentiment would suggest this isn’t the year to be rooting for a 20-something to claim the most prestigious tournament in golf. But Rickie Fowler, 28, would be the rightful winner of this Masters, if only because he has proved to be the oldest soul in the house.
You might root for Rickie, anyway, because he wears cool and colorful clothes, he makes a lot of time for the fans, and he used to wear his hair like the lead guitarist in a rock band. This weekend, root for him to emerge from his share of the 4-under lead with Garcia, Charley Hoffman and Thomas Pieters. Root for Fowler to win the Masters because there is no player in the field the late, great Arnold Palmer would’ve rather seen win it.
This tournament was meant to be about Palmer, start to finish, from the moment the devastating news hit in September that the King had died at 87. Arnie made Augusta, and Augusta made Arnie, and that’s why the club handed out Arnie’s Army pins this week to the loyalists looking to make one last stand. That’s why Palmer’s green jacket was draped over a white chair on the first tee Thursday morning when the surviving Big Two, Nicklaus and Gary Player, took their ceremonial drives with tears in their eyes.
That’s why Rickie Fowler was out there in the flesh to pay tribute to his friend one last time.
“That’s why Rickie was excited about his tee time Thursday, so he could be there,” said his caddie, Joe Skovron.
Fowler was scheduled to tee off at 10:12 a.m. Nicklaus and Player teed off just before 7:45 a.m. So, no, Fowler wasn’t there as a matter of convenience. He was there as a matter of respect.
“Rickie is very millennial with Instagram, the phone, the way he dresses,” Skovron said. “But if you talk to the veterans out here, they learn about him quick. I think it comes from the way Rickie was raised. He’s always been very respectful of everyone who came before him.”
Especially Arnold Palmer.
Skovron, 36, has known Fowler since he was a kid growing up in Murrieta, California. Skovron’s parents ran the junior golf association Rickie played in, and Skovron and Fowler practiced at the Murrieta Valley Golf Range. In other words, the caddie knows what makes his player tick. He knows Fowler’s old coach, Barry McDonnell, stressed a big-picture understanding of the game’s evolution. Skovron knows his player felt a need to connect with the legends of the past.
“Rickie had a special relationship with Arnie,” the caddie says, “and still has one with the Nicklauses.”
Unlike some of his fellow headliners, Fowler played the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month as a tribute to the one and only. It hurt him to skip Bay Hill the previous year, calling it “one of the hardest things I had to do.” Fowler didn’t phone in his regrets. He visited Palmer’s office and broke the bad news to him over lunch. “The kind of look he gave me when I told him I wasn’t going to be able to be here was … it was hard to stick to what the plan was and what I was trying to do with the schedule,” Fowler said.
He gave Palmer a cap and signed it, “To the original King.” Skovron recalled entering Palmer’s empty office in March and seeing Fowler’s as the only cap on the King’s shelves.
“And they said it wasn’t staged,” the caddie said.
Nothing was artificial about this cross-generational, Palmer-Fowler bond. Arnie consoled Rickie in the Bay Hill locker room in 2013 after Fowler put two balls in the water in his loss to Tiger Woods, slapping one of those meat-hook hands on the emotional kid’s shoulder and assuring him there would be brighter days ahead.
One of Arnie’s associates was sitting with Palmer in a cart once at Seminole when Fowler came running down the fairway to show his dear friend and grandfather figure that he had cut his hair, just as Palmer had requested. When Fowler was done playing the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, and playing it in shoes that were effectively Palmer photo exhibits, that same associate asked Fowler when he’d be leaving for Austin, Texas, and the World Golf Championship-Match Play, the preferred destination for the Bay Hill-skipping likes of Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.
“I’m not going to Austin,” Fowler told him. “There are always going to be other WGCs. There’s only going to be one of these.”
And at Augusta National, there’s only going to be one of these, too — the first Masters after Palmer’s death. Fowler had never held the lead after any round in a major championship, and one year after missing the Masters cut and opening with an 80 (“That was a bit of a shock to all of us,” Skovron said), he needed to shoot Friday’s low round, 67, in the swirling winds to earn a share here.
Fowler had a blast posting red numbers and watching his name climb the Augusta National ladder. “I love looking up and seeing the big leaderboards,” he said Friday evening. “It’s a cool thing about Augusta, very old school with the non-electronic leaderboards out there. It’s a lot of fun to see your name up there, so hopefully I can go ahead and keep it up there on the big leaderboards.”
Nobody was surprised that Fowler appreciates something as old school as the classic hand-operated boards; Arnold Palmer was the same way.
“I was privileged to call him a friend,” Fowler said. “The amount of time that I spent with him, the memories, getting to play golf with him at Seminole to hanging in the locker room and the bar at Bay Hill after Tiger won. … He was a special man.”
Fowler attended Palmer’s memorial service in the fall; of course he did.
“I just think Arnie was a big deal to him,” Skovron said.
Palmer knew it, too. He saw a kindred spirit in Fowler, and he would’ve wanted to be there to shake his hand when the kid won his first major.
So a vote for Rickie is a vote for Arnie, and here’s hoping Fowler has the best possible Sunday finish on the Augusta National board.
ESPN contributed to this post.