CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rickie Fowler has never been afraid to put it all on the line.
The thrill-seeking passion for motocross as a teenager. The head-turning clothing he brought to the PGA Tour as a rookie, such as the bright orange ensemble from head-to-toe on Sundays. With a chance to finally break through for his first PGA Tour win, the kid showed his true colors.
In a three-way playoff that featured U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, the 23-year-old Fowler gambled with a 51-degree wedge that had to be perfect on an 18th hole at Quail Hollow that had yielded only four birdies all day.
And it was.
Fowler stuffed his shot into 4 feet for a birdie on the first extra hole to beat McIlroy and D.A. Points and win the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday. It was his first PGA Tour win in his 67th start as a pro, bringing him a small measure of relief and a big dose of credibility.
"I didn't want to play it safe," Fowler said. "I had a good number (133 yards), and I was aiming right of the hole with the wind coming out of the right, and if I hit a perfect shot, it comes down right on the stick. ... I hit a perfect shot at the right time, and I was going for it."
McIlroy, who returned to No. 1 in the world, used Quail Hollow as a launching pad toward stardom when he won here two years ago. Perhaps this is the start of a rivalry for years between a pair of 23-year-olds who bring power, flair and exuberance to the game.
"I'm looking forward to playing with Rory for a long time," said Fowler, who closed with a 3-under 69. "It's awesome. It's a long wait, but well worth it."
McIlroy established himself on the same green two years ago, a 20-year-old who closed out a record 62 by making a 40-foot putt for his first PGA Tour win, and the biggest of his career until adding a record-breaking U.S. Open title last summer at Congressional.
This time, it was Fowler's turn.
"You wouldn't call the 18th today a birdie hole with that pin," McIlroy said. "For Rickie to go out and play that hole the way he did, he deserved to win."
Along for the ride was Points, a 35-year-old who had the tournament in his grasp until ending 40 straight holes without a bogey by making one at the worst time. He had a one-shot lead going to the 18th in regulation, hit his approach in a bunker and never came close to a par. He shot 71.
McIlroy had a shot at winning in regulation and missed a 15-foot birdie putt, giving him a 70.
In the playoff, all three hit the fairway, with McIlroy hitting a 3-wood that traveled nearly 340 yards. Points and McIlroy were well off the mark and had to work hard to get their two-putt pars. Fowler came up with the best shot of his career.
"The shot he hit was spectacular," Points said.
Even though they're the same age, McIlroy has a two-year head start on Fowler. They were in the Walker Cup together in 2007, and McIlroy turned pro that fall. Fowler didn't turn pro until two years ago. The only other time Fowler won as a pro was last year at the Korea Open, where he also beat McIlroy.
The difference was winning, and McIlroy still has a big edge.
As he entered the press conference, Fowler put his hat on backward, smiled and said, "Told you it was coming."
"It's a good feeling right now," Fowler said. "Definitely some relief, satisfaction. I'm definitely happy. It's not a bad thing, winning. It's kind of fun."
Fowler and McIlroy both recovered from late bogeys to get in the playoff.
Fowler had the outright lead until he went bunker-to-bunker on the 16th hole, the second time drawing a plugged lie, and missed a 10-foot par putt. He had a 20-foot birdie putt on the last hole, though it never had a chance. He was the first one in at 14-under 274.
McIlroy went long of the green on the par-3 17th and missed an 8-foot par putt, but when Points struggled on the 18th, McIlroy had a putt for the win.
Webb Simpson, the 54-hole leader who lives a mile from Quail Hollow, made a mess of the eighth hole for a bogey and three-putted the 11th to fall back. Back-to-back birdies late in his round kept his hopes alive, and he had a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th to join the playoff. It missed and he had a 73 to finish alone in fourth.
Ryan Moore, who played in the final group with Simpson, didn't make a birdie until the 15th hole and shot 74. He tied for fifth with Lee Westwood (66) and Ben Curtis (67), who finished before the leaders got to the back nine.
For all his endorsements and marketing prowess, Fowler was starting to hear whispers about when he was going to win. What carried him along was patience and impeccable manners, which have made him a favorite among his peers.
Making this win even sweeter was having his mother, Lynn, and girlfriend Alexandra Brown (daughter of PGA Tour winner Olin Browne) in the gallery.
"I'm over the top," his mother said, fighting back tears. "I'm relieved for him because this is an expectation from the people, the fans, the tournament staff directors. And now he can hopefully carry on and do the work that he likes to do."
On the back nine, it was clear this was a three-man race, and all had their shots at winning.
"I think it was just a matter of time before he won," McIlroy said. "It seems like this tournament produces first-time winners – Anthony Kim, myself, now Rickie. It's great to see. He probably has went through a little 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 will ease the pressure a little bit."
Fowler said he never felt the pressure of waiting 2 1/2 years for his first win. The longest wait might have been for his shot in the playoff to descend from the cloudy sky, so he could make sure it had enough to take the stream out of play.
"It was a little bit of a gamble," he said.
Fowler earned $1.17 million and best of all, achieved his primary goal of winning on the PGA Tour. That should help him reach his other marks this year, getting to the Tour Championship for the first time and perhaps getting another spot on the Ryder Cup team.
He was picked in 2010 – the first PGA Tour rookie ever selected by a captain – and showed his promise by winning the last four holes to earn a halve in his singles match. McIlroy is far more accomplished, with a major championship and a return to No. 1 in the world.
But as a generational shift in golf continues, this could be a rivalry worth watching.