Rickie Fowler's rising popularity a product of lessons from motocross legend Jeremy McGrath

Eric Adelson
Yahoo! Sports

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – So who's Rickie Fowler's childhood hero?

Tiger? Phil?

Try Jeremy McGrath.

Yes, golf's latest sensation has patterned himself after the "King of Motocross," and you might be surprised what helps steady Fowler's mind when he needs to make a big putt.

Because as Fowler explains to his dad, how could he be nervous on a golf course after countless times barreling at top speed over a mammoth dirt hill?

"We used to go to the desert and ride," said Rod Fowler after his son's 66 vaulted him into third place at The Players Championship on Saturday. "There would be jumps as big as that tree, and he was the first one to hit it. He was unbelievable at riding."

Rickie was just as suited for motocross greatness as he was for golf greatness. Rod rode motorcycles from his youth and took Rickie out often as a boy. Rickie's dad met McGrath one day at a Carl's Jr. when he blew some train horns at him while passing by, scaring the Supercross icon half-to-death. Rod and McGrath became friends, and Jeremy became one of Rickie's heroes. Rickie liked how McGrath was humble and self-made but fierce on the track. The two played golf a few times but McGrath had high hopes for Rickie's future as a rider. "Jeremy thought he could have been a top Supercross rider," said Rod.

Then came a freak accident.

When Fowler was 15, a little kid in a park of motor homes came up the wrong side of a makeshift jump just as Rickie was coming up on it. Fowler saw the boy just in time and ditched. He broke three bones in his right ankle and fractured his left wrist.

High school golf tryouts were coming up and, as Rod says, "All he ever wanted to do in life was make the high school golf team," so Rickie announced that would be it for riding for a while.

"At that point I knew if I wanted to be serious with golf and take it to the next level … I wouldn't be able to share the time," he said Saturday.

Dad's reaction?

"I was bummed," he said Saturday with a laugh. "He was my riding partner. Now it all makes sense."

[Related: Na takes a one-shot lead at The Players]

It sure does. Rickie Fowler is now golf's benign renegade – edgy enough to get people talking but classy enough to prevent any squawking. That comes in part from McGrath's influence.

"Rickie looked up to him," Rod said Saturday. "He taught him how to deal with people. Don't be someone he's not. People love that."

Including four boys who waited off the 17th green Saturday, two in baby blue Puma hats, one in a white Puma hat, and one who came to the course without one because he wanted to buy one. Sadly, they were all sold out. Which tells you something.

"He's just awesome," said Jake Newman, 11. "I've been following him since his rookie year." (That's a long time in kid's years.)

Jake and his buddies' fandom was rewarded Saturday when Fowler walked off 17 and walked briskly to the 18th tee. He saw the boys and nodded approvingly. The boys went nuts.

[Related: Brilliant third round puts Rickie Fowler into contention]

And even though Fowler's moustache and long hair cries 'rebel,' parents love him too. You'll see the trademark Puma slogan and the flat brims on young and old. Well, older. "I get a laugh out of it and feel honored when there's 40- or 50-year-old guys that are cruising around in all orange," Fowler said. Marketers aren't laughing, though. Longtime golf writer Ron Sirak calls the sea of Fowler-fluorescent colors "the new reality of the PGA Tour."

But there's a very serious side to Fowler, too. He acknowledges the crowd but he doesn't joke around much. He rides his Honda bike sometimes but not often. He insisted on wearing long pants as a junior golfer even though pretty much all the boys wear shorts, because "that's what the pros wear." (One year, Rickie dressed up as Fred Couples for Halloween.) You have to be pretty diligent to go from a San Diego driving range to the top of the PGA Tour, and part of that is from seeing his dad transport sand and gravel in one of his trucks. This is not a country club family, and Fowler is not a trust fund baby.

"I'm very proud," said Rod. "He's an awesome kid."

So he's got all the ingredients of celebrity swirling around under that flat-brimmed cap: likeablity, style, seriousness of purpose, a killer swing, an unlikely back story, and finally, a Tour victory as of last week at the Wells Fargo Championship. Now he needs a big moment at a big event. That could come as soon as Sunday.

But there is an obstacle, aside from Kevin Na, Matt Kuchar and the rest of the TPC leaderboard: Fowler's final-round scoring average is not great. He's 63rd on Tour with a 71.11 – almost a full stroke worse than his third-round average. He's only 23, so there is plenty of time, but the world awaits the next Tiger and Fowler will have to close like Tiger to be like Tiger.

Even though he'd rather be like Jeremy McGrath.

Related video on Yahoo! Sports:

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Jeff Passan: Minor-leaguer Irving Falu forges bond with young fan
The real Phillip Thomas is an Eagle; the imposter wanted to be on the Redskins
LeBron's third MVP award likely won't be his last | Elite company
Y! News: Man implants magnets to keep IPod at the ready

What to Read Next