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With Tiger Woods on an unexpected hiatus after missing the cut at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, and Phil Mickelson on his way into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday, it was somehow fitting that young phenom Rickie Fowler should earn his first PGA Tour win by duking it out to the end with another 20-something, Rory McIlroy.

Rickie Fowler earns his first PGA Tour win at the Wells Fargo Championship (Photo: rickie-fowler.com)

Indeed, the tour has touted several young guns, including Fowler and McIlroy, who — despite his loss on the first extra hole of a sudden-death playoff,  ascended yet again to the top spot atop the world golf rankings — as the future of golf. And while Mickelson may well add to his 40 career PGA wins and Woods could conceivably figure out how to swing the club and putt consistently again, a budding Fowler-McIlroy rivalry could be just the ticket the tour yearns for to reach young fans as the older guys exit stage left.

“We’ve always had a great camaraderie, been good buddies,” Fowler told reporters after sticking his approach shot to four feet and canning a four-foot birdie putt to defeat McIlroy and D.A. Points on the first extra frame at Quail Hollow Club. ”I definitely respect him as a player and I feel like he respects me as well — at least I hope so. I’ve had a lot of fun playing against him…and hopefully [we’ll have] a lot more tournaments like this where we’re battling back and forth.”

The reigning U.S. Open champ got in on the fun with a post-finale Twitter blast in which he circuitously tweaked third-year tour pro Fowler for taking so long to grab his first U.S. win.

“Congrats to @RickieFowlerPGA!” @mcilroyrory tweeted. “About time!!” 

Fowler, arrayed in his Sunday neon orange from flat-billed cap to shoes, acknowledged that a “friendly rivalry” had blossomed between golf’s No. 1 and its most chromatic. Indeed, while Sunday marked Fowler’s inaugural stateside W, he had actually notched his first professional victory last fall when he beat McIlroy by six strokes in the Korea Open.

While talk of a McIlroy-Fowler competition was on the tongues of many wags on Sunday, an inclusive Fowler noted that some 10 other “new breed” golfers — a group that could include 2011 PGA champion and Rookie of the Year Keegan Bradley, No. 5 Hunter Mahan, and 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship titleholder Webb Simpson — could factor into curious clashes going forward.

“It’s obviously an honor to be talked about as Rory and I [battle] back and forth,” Fowler said, “but I do feel like there’s a lot of guys that deserve some credit that would be part of a rivalry.”

For now, however, a Fowler-McIlroy contest has the most cachet.

“Rory is the top-ranked young player right now, I’m probably the one that sticks out most with color,” Fowler said. “Now I’m a PGA Tour winner so I’ve got some credibility.”

Bradley, by the way, failed to make the cut at Quail Hollow, while fellow New England native James Driscoll finished in the top 10 (T9, at 9-under) for the second time this season.

Emily Kay is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly. You may follow Kay on Twitter @golfexaminer

WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?