- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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PINEHURST, N.C. -- Many kids in Rickie Fowler's generation just don't get it, that's what the Old Schoolers like to say, anyway. The twenty-somethings don't respect history, don't appreciate who came before them, and don't see any cause as bigger than their own daily pursuits.
On the surface, Fowler can come across as the too-cool-for-school face of that perception. He has fame and fortune despite only one PGA Tour victory to his name. He wears hip clothes, appears in cute, if self-congratulatory, commercials, and plays in a faux band on YouTube with a circle of fellow pampered golfers.
Oh yeah, and the ladies have noticed he looks like Johnny Depp to boot.
Only around tour, Fowler is known as a genuine soul, as real as the day is long. So when he walked into the Pinehurst locker room Thursday morning dressed up as one of his heroes, Payne Stewart, some of his U.S. Open competitors were taken aback but not surprised.
Phil Mickelson, who lost the memorable duel to Stewart here in 1999, four months before the winner perished in a plane crash, flashed Fowler a smile and a thumbs-up after surveying his white plus-fours and the white, blue, and green argyle socks pulled up to his knees.
Tucked under a flat-bill ballcap Thursday, Fowler decided against wearing Stewart's trademark tam-o'-shanter because he wasn't sure if his backers at Puma and Cobra could come up with one that worked for him. "But I think the outfit did all right today," he said.
It did much better than all right. This wasn't some marketing gimmick designed to make the telegenic Fowler even more appealing to the masses.
This was a moving show of kindness and perspective from a 25-year-old who can look beyond the fairways and see the forest instead of the trees.
A painful childhood memory inspired this grownup tribute. On Oct. 25, 1999, a 10-year-old Fowler was just out of school and sitting in the car with his mother and sister when the news came across the radio.
Stewart was dead at 42 after his Learjet lost cabin pressure, killing all six on board before the runaway plane ran out of fuel and crashed in a South Dakota field.
"I started crying in the car," Fowler said.
So did a lot of golf fans who couldn't believe that a champion so vibrant could be gone so soon.
"Payne was one of my all-time favorite players," Fowler said after shooting his even-par 70. "I never had a chance of meeting him, but obviously loved watching him play and loved how he handled himself on and off the course. ... 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 cooler to hear that the Pinehurst fans loved the look and the sentiment behind it. They shouted out Payne's name to Fowler and told him, "nice knickers" and "nice socks" and "nice outfit." When Fowler made the turn, one fan shouted, "Rickie Stewart."
He liked that one. He liked the whole idea of this as far back as a few months ago, when he asked Puma to come up with the appropriate threads. Fowler didn't tell anyone outside his family and close friends what he was planning for Round 1 at Pinehurst. He just wanted to show up looking like Payne Stewart before he tried to play like him.
Starting on the back nine, Fowler ripped off 10 consecutive pars before birdies at Nos. 2 and 5 gave him a share of the lead. He bogeyed the sixth hole and caught a dreadful break at No. 9, where his approach plugged deep in a bunker and cost him a final score under par.
"All in all," Fowler said after hitting fairways and greens all day, "it was probably the worst I could've shot."
Even though he stood 5 shots off Martin Kaymer's pace, Fowler remained the first-round leader in so many ways.
"It's going to be fun remembering what [Stewart] did around this place!" he tweeted before his round.
"Pretty cool being able to honor Payne today," he tweeted afterward, adding the hashtags #USOpen and #knickers and posting an Instagram photo of himself in action. "Off to a good start...swing was on ..."
Fowler's swing once made him the world's best amateur player and, at 21, the youngest American ever to make a Ryder Cup team. A couple of years ago Tiger Woods said Fowler had "an inordinate amount of talent," and gave the following forecast:
"He's the type of guy, once he understands what it takes to win out here, he can win a lot."
Fowler won the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012, and nothing else since. He's starred in those Golf Boys videos with Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, and Ben Crane, and in those Crowne Plaza commercials that show him signing things hotel guests don't necessarily want signed.
He's made a mint without the professional trophies to go along with it, and that's something Fowler has plenty of time to change. But even if he never becomes the multiple major champion many expected him to be, Fowler showed a few things Thursday that can't be measured by a leaderboard.
Grace. Dignity. Humanity.
Fowler plans on returning to his own personal brand of colorful outfits Friday, so the plus-fours will remain in his closet. That's OK, the game is already over. Win, lose, or withdraw at Pinehurst, this is one kid who definitely gets it.
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