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Golf was looking for a worthy rival to challenge Tiger Woods for almost 15 years until Rory McIlroy came along.

But even if the two wind up in some epic battles the next few seasons, how long can it last? Woods is 37 years old and McIlroy only 23, a full golf generation apart.

There's another American who might be able to stand up to McIlroy long-term, and it's Rickie Fowler, who also is 23.

"Well, Rory is the top-ranked player right now, and I'm probably the one that sticks out most with color," said Fowler, whose neon outfits will be on display this week in the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

"Now I'm a PGA Tour winner, so I've got some credibility. ... It's obviously an honor to be talked about ... but I do feel like there's a lot of guys that deserve some credit that would be part of a rivalry."

Sure, McIlroy is way out in front right now with major titles in each of the past two seasons, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship. He has claimed six of his nine professional victories on the PGA Tour.

While Fowler has won only twice as a pro, he went through McIlroy both times to get them, winning the Wells Fargo Championship last season with a birdie on the first playoff hole to beat the Irishman and D.A. Points, and capturing the 2011 Kolon Korean Open by six strokes over McIlroy.

"We've always had a great camaraderie, been good buddies," Fowler said after his victory last May, which he backed up by finishing second the following week in the Players Championship. "You know, 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.

"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."

After teasing fans with four runner-up finishes since 2009, when he lost to Troy Matteson in a playoff at the Frys.com Open right out of Oklahoma State and before he earned his PGA Tour card at Q-school, Fowler finally broke through last season.

His victory at Quail Hollow, where he hit a 52-degree wedge to within four feet and carded only the fifth birdie of the day at No. 18, the playoff hole, was one of his five top-10 finishes and eight top-25 finishes during the year.

However, Fowler struggled in the second half of the season and was disappointed to miss out on the Ryder Cup, and possibly more encounters with McIlroy, after playing well as a rookie on the U.S. team at Celtic Manor in Wales in 2010.

What wasn't known until he pulled out of the CIMB Asia Pacific Classic in October was that Fowler was battling a lower back injury when he posted only two top-10 finishes in his last nine regular-season events.

"After the two-month break I had, (it) kind of fueled the fire a little bit to come back out and makes you want to play and compete more," Fowler said at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, where he started the season with a tie for sixth. Last week, he bounced back from an opening 77 to post another tie for sixth in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

"I had inflamed joints on both (sacroiliac joints), actually, the left and the right, and L-4, L-5, left facets. The SI joints, which are kind of low back in your hips. Inflamed, yeah, swollen. They were (ticked) off at me.

"I'm not 100 percent, yet. I'm definitely working toward that."

Fowler will do his work this week at the TPC Scottsdale, where he will be playing for the fifth consecutive year. He was granted a sponsor's exemption by the Thunderbirds, who manage the event, as an amateur in 2009.

The raucous enthusiasm of the young crowd, especially at the amphitheater-like 16th hole, would seem to be perfect for the former motocross rider.

"Obviously the atmosphere here is fun and can get a bit crazy at times, so this is one tournament that I really look forward to," Fowler said. "(No.) 16 is awesome. It's definitely, probably my favorite par-3 on tour.

"But it's a lot of fun to have a young following, a lot of the young kids that look up to me, and definitely a position I want to be in."

There won't be a duel of the young guns in the Sonoran desert because McIlroy isn't in the field, but there are plenty of years left for that.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Ariz., Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 4-7 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 1-3 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel and 3-6 p.m. EST on NBC.

LAST YEAR: Kyle Stanley, who a week earlier blew a three-stroke lead on the final hole of regulation and lost in a playoff to Brandt Snedeker, closed with a 6-under-par 65 to beat Ben Crane by one stroke for his first PGA Tour victory. Spencer Levin, who held a seven-stroke lead after one hole of the final round, melted down with a 75, and Stanley took advantage. Stanley carded birdies on the 13th and 14th holes, taking the lead for good with a 12-foot putt on the latter, and claimed the victory by holing a four-foot putt for par on the final hole. Levin, also seeking his first PGA Tour victory, took a double-bogey 7 on the 15th hole and finished third, two strokes back.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: Allianz Championship on the Old Course at Broken Sound in Boca Raton, Fla., Feb. 8-10.

TV: Friday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. EST; Saturday, 6:30-9:30 p.m. EST, and Sunday, 7-9:30 p.m. EST, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Corey Pavin sank a 12-foot putt for par on the first playoff hole to beat Peter Senior of Australia and claim his first victory on the Champions Tour when Senior missed from about the same distance. Pavin and Senior, who also was seeking his initial title on the senior circuit, both closed with 1-under-par 71s, with Senior holing a six-foot par putt on the final hole of regulation to force the playoff after Pavin missed a 10-footer for birdie. Pavin saved his day with a par 3 on the 14th hole, where his tee shot stopped next to a tree and forced him to hit a chip shot left-handed with an inverted 8 iron. His ball stopped five feet from the hole, and he made the putt.

LPGA TOUR: LPGA-ISPS Handa Women's Australia Open at Royal Canberra Golf Club in Yarralumla, Australia, Feb. 14-17.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 12:30-2:30 p.m. EST; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m., on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Jessica Korda holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the second hole of a record-tying playoff with five other golfers to claim her first LPGA Tour victory at Royal Melbourne. The 18-year-old Korda, whose father Petr won the Australian Open tennis championship in 1998, took a one-stroke lead into the final round and held the top spot until faltering with bogeys on the 14th, 15th and 16th holes. She needed a birdie on No. 17 to shoot 2-over-par 74 and get into the playoff with Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Lewis, Julieta Granada of Paraguay, and South Koreans Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu.
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