John Felix does not consider himself a genius.
When he handed Rickie Fowler a berth in the field of the 2009 Phoenix Open, or Big Chief to use the jargon of tournament organizers, the Thunderbirds, he certainly looked like one.
Felix had ultimate control in picking the five players who would obtain sponsor exemptions into the tournament as part of his role.
“As tournament chairman, it’s the hardest thing we do because you know you’re going to let a lot of people down,” Felix added.
Felix, on the other hand, had a philosophy. He gifted one to the tournament’s 1998 champion, Jesper Parnevik of Sweden, who was not exempt for the first time. He set aside another for Ted Purdy, a Valley resident who had given generously of his time to the Thunderbirds’ charity endeavors.
In a second example of no good deed going unpunished, Felix remembers fan favorite Jason Gore showed up to play in the Monday offsite pro-am at 6:30 a.m. one day when it was raining and 38 degrees outside and several other pros suddenly became ill with an unknown ailment. And Scott Piercy, who was establishing himself as a talented player who would go on to win four times on the PGA Tour, the most recent in 2018, was an obvious decision for his fourth pick.
However, for the fifth and final exemption, Felix chose to take a chance, or as he described it, “cloud seed,” by selecting a player who wouldn’t necessarily yield a bumper crop this year but could reap a larger harvest later on.
That’s how he came upon Fowler, a 20-year-old Oklahoma State University sophomore.
“I got a lot of flak for it,” Felix admitted, and others believed he chose the incorrect Rickie, neglecting former University of Arizona great Ricky Barnes, who came close to winning the US Open that June. “It was a guy trying to make a living vs an amateur who couldn’t take a check.” But Rickie made it appear as if I understood what I was doing, and I can’t claim I did.
“I mean, who knew he was going to become a brand and a game-changing personality in golf?” But, let’s be honest, he has the ‘X factor.’ I was just looking through his discography, and I noticed that he always performed on a large stage, and the bigger the stage, the better he performed.”
Felix chuckles as he recalls calling Fowler’s number to extend the invitation and having his mother answer the phone rather than an agent or manager. Felix planned to call back later because the news was too important to leave in a message. What is his favorite memory from Fowler’s first tournament appearance? That had to be Fowler’s outfit for the pre-tournament party on Tuesday night.
“Rickie walked in with cool, flowing hair and white patent-leather shoes that Cousin Eddie from Christmas Vacation would have envied,” Felix said. “It was absolutely stunning.”
“Fowler’s talent shone through, even though he was still raw and full of promise. During the first two rounds, he was paired with Geoff Ogilvy, and he shot a second-round 66 to make the cut, eventually finishing T-58. Fowler’s game so impressed Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open winner, that he wrote to Felix and said, “This guy has all the shots.” He is currently eligible to play on the PGA Tour.”
Fowler has become as much a tournament mainstay as booing pros who miss the 16th green, thanks to Felix’s gamble. Since 2009, he’s competed in “The Greatest Show on Grass” at TPC Scottsdale more than any other PGA Tour event, returning to the Valley of the Sun every year to compete in “The Greatest Show on Grass.” Fowler has a remarkable record, with a win, two seconds, and only three missed cuts in his career, in 2013 and 2014, and last year.
Fowler could require a win at TPC Scottsdale to rekindle his special mojo, since he hasn’t won since winning here in 2019. In October, he came close to winning the CJ Cup, holding the 54-hole lead before settling for a share of third place.
He failed to enter the top 40 in any of his next two starts, and he missed the cut at both the American Express and Farmers Insurance Opens, his first tournaments since the birth of his daughter, Maya, on November 18. In his last 44 starts, Fowler has only four top-10 results and is ranked No. 108 in the world.
“My game isn’t far off,” Fowler said in January in Palm Springs. “I feel really at ease when I’m at the WM Phoenix Open, and it’s a venue where I know I can play well no matter what game I’m playing.”
TPC Scottsdale would be an excellent place to turn things around. Fowler enjoys in playing in front of the raucous crowds at “The People’s Open.” He admits to being an adrenaline junkie from his Motocross days, and he didn’t put down his bike in favor of his golf clubs until a high school collision shattered his right foot in three places and injured his knee.
He was immediately enamored with the scene at the par-3 16th hole, becoming the first player to encourage fans to shout louder before hitting his tee shot, as well as throwing hats and other merchandise from his sponsors to fans as he made his way to the green, as if it were a timeout at a Phoenix Suns game.
Fowler commented, “I adore the atmosphere.” “I grew up around action sports, and this reminds me a lot of being at action sports events, where the people are noisy and having a good time.”
“How much he loves the event is evident by the amount of pressure he puts on himself to win it,” Felix added, shedding a few tears as Fowler finally lifted the crystal trophy 10 years after Felix granted him an exemption. “You could see it meant a lot to him and he desired it a number of times when he came close.” I believe that is a significant event on his calendar.”
Fowler would become the tournament’s face and continue to promote it in major and small ways, including speaking at the tournament’s annual tee-off party, which Felix could not have predicted. Dr. Michael Golding, this year’s Big Chief, took a page from Felix’s playbook and gave one of the valuable sponsor exemptions to Arizona State student Preston Summerhays, who is 18 years old. He’ll have a hard time catching up to Fowler, who has set a high standard in terms of return on investment.
Felix replied, “He’s repaid us a thousand times over for that invitation.” “Watching him finally win our tournament was my favorite part of being a part of it.” He made me appear intelligent, but I had no idea it would end out the way it did.”
Some could call it a stroke of brilliance.
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