PINEHURST, N.C. -- Rickie Fowler has been getting a rise out of people with his colorful golf attire for quite some time, but no reaction has meant more to him than the way Phil Mickelson responded when he laid eyes on Fowler on Thursday morning in the U.S. Open locker room.
In a tribute that was kept remarkably secret until he set foot on the course for the first round, Fowler walked in dressed like the late Payne Stewart: white knickers, a blue shirt and matching argyle socks. The only thing missing was Stewart's flat cap. Fowler wore his trademark Puma flat-billed baseball cap instead.
Mickelson looked up as Fowler walked in. He smiled at Fowler, and gave him a thumbs-up.
"Phil obviously is a good buddy of mine, and him giving a smile and a thumbs-up, I think everyone really liked it," Fowler said. "Because he was right there with Payne in '99 (at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst), I was waiting to see what I might get out of him today."
Fowler was a 10-year-old in Murrieta, Calif., in October 1999 when he heard the news that Stewart and five others died on a chartered jet that lost cabin pressure and crashed in South Dakota.
"I was just getting off school," Fowler said after shooting a fine, even-par 70 in the first round Thursday. "I was on College Road sitting in the back seat with my mom and sister in the car. I started crying in the car. He was someone that I looked up to. I think it was tragic to the whole golf world."
A few months ago, Fowler came up with the idea of honoring Stewart by dressing as Stewart did throughout much of his career, and most notably here 15 years ago.
"I don't think anyone outside my family, the people at Puma, a couple close friends, probably 10 people actually knew I was going to wear this," he said. "I tried to keep it as quiet as possible."
He idolized Stewart then, and now, and in some ways is the epitome of the man he remembered Thursday: flashy and talented, with a flair for the dramatic. Stewart won the U.S. Open in 1991, at 34, and again in 1999. Fowler still is waiting for his first major title.
"Payne was one of my all-time favorite players," Fowler said. "I never had a chance of meeting him, but I obviously loved watching him play and loved how he handled himself on and off the golf course. And hearing from guys that have been out here for a while that knew Payne well, hearing from them how great a guy he was on the course and off, it's cool to be in the position I'm in to wear some attire like he used to wear, to give tribute to him."
It was a stroke of genius. How often do young athletes really know the history of their sport, much less have the wherewithal to respond as Fowler did, with such a dramatic gesture? It was like something from another time, and the spectators loved it.
"It was cool to get the comments from fans out there walking down holes," Fowler said. "Anything you can think of. (From) shouting out Payne's name to 'Nice knickers, nice socks, nice outfit.' It was cool when I was walking off one, when I made the turn, someone yelled out 'Rickie Stewart.' It was cool to walk around and be in the middle of it and kind of share it with the fans."
Fowler's play also was worthy of their attention. Starting on the back nine, he parred the first 10 holes before birdies on Nos. 2 and 5, followed by bogeys on the par-3 sixth and ninth holes.
"All in all, it was probably the worst I could have shot," he said. "I was very pleased with the ball-striking. I think I hit 12 fairways and 15 greens, which is pretty good around this place."
Fowler's even-par round was good enough for a tie for 16th place, but it was the worst in his threesome. His playing partners, Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama, shot 1-under 69s. Fowler, 25, was the oldest of the group, followed by Matsuyama at 22 and Spieth, 20.
"I think the three of us were feeding off each other," he said. "I'm definitely the oldest guy in the group. So I've got more experience, so technically I should do better. But they both got me today."
Not that it really mattered. There was something more important going on Thursday. "Definitely, a special day," Fowler said, and he was right. What he shot was secondary to what he wore.