ERIN, Wis. — It’s good to be Rickie Fowler. Oceanfront estate, big dollars in the bank, fame the globe over. With his glass always nearly full, there are few things in his life that bother him. Not even a backhanded compliment.
Since Sergio Garcia rid himself of the best player never to win a major label at the Masters, Fowler has moved front and center in the 19th hole conversations around the world. He smiles when the topic is broached, choosing to focus on the best player portion of the title rather than obsess on the shortcoming of never having won a major championship. “There are a lot of really good players out here that haven't won a major,” Fowler said. Then after a long pause he added, “But it would be nice to get rid of that at some point.”
Fowler put himself in position to do just that with a brilliant 7-under-par 65 that included birdies on all four of the par-5s at benign Erin Hills in Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open. Never looking out of sorts in the game’s toughest test and never penciling in a bogey, Fowler wound up with a one-shot lead.
“It was nice. You don't get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free,” said Fowler, who hit 12 of 14 fairways in regulation and 15 of 18 greens.
Fowler wasn’t the only one to assault par. With multiple showers earlier in the week taking the fire out of Erin Hills, and with gentle breezes flowing over the course, players had an easier time handling the rugged layout stretched out to 7,845 yards, the longest course in major championship history.
Paul Casey, also looking for his first major triumph, eagled his first hole and birdied the last for a 66. Also at 66 was Xander Schauffele, who qualified for the Open by surviving a five-man playoff for the final two spots in Memphis.
Brian Harman, Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood — all looking for their first major titles — signed for 67. Ryder Cup hero Patrick Reed, another seeking his first major, was in a foursome at 68. Seven players were at 69, including Lee Westwood, who has long been in the conversation of best player never to win a major. In all, a record 44 players finished under par. The previous record for most sub-par rounds in the first round of the tournament was 39, set in 1990 at Medinah Country Club. “It feels like a PGA Tour event right now where you are trying to make birdies instead of making pars,” Brandt Snedeker said after shooting 70.
The best birdie barrage was delivered by Adam Hadwin, who shot 59 in the CareerBuilder Challenge. En route to a 68 Thursday, he joined George Burns (1982 at Pebble Beach) and Andy Dillard (1992 at Pebble Beach) as the only players in tournament history to make six consecutive birdies. Hadwin, starting on the 10th, birdied the 18th and then the first five holes on the front.
“I was 2 over through eight holes, and my mindset didn't change, and I made six birdies. So anything can happen out here,” said Hadwin, who won his first PGA Tour title this year in the Valspar Championship. “Hit a few good shots, get on a roll, and I kept it going.”
Shockingly, the top 6 players in the world did not take advantage of the calm conditions. World No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson, who on Monday became a father for the second time, never got going during his round of 75. No. 2 Rory McIlroy shot 78, No. 3 Jason Day a 79, No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama a 74, No. 5 Jordan Spieth a 73 and No. 6 Henrik Stenson shot 74.
“I’m a little frustrated. I didn’t play that bad,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t putt very good. If I don’t three-putt, I shoot even. I’m swinging good, everything feels good. I just need to make more putts here.” Don’t expect the red numbers to keep dominating the white scoreboards here. Fowler and others said the course will likely toughen up and force players to start thinking pars instead of birdies as they annually do in a U.S. Open.
Fowler would welcome it. He doesn’t shy from the game’s toughest challenges or its biggest stages, and counts among his four PGA Tour titles the big-time Players Championship in 2015. In 2014, Fowler finished in the top-5 in every major; the only other players to do so in a single season are Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Spieth.
Fowler’s victory this year in the Honda Classic boosted his confidence. Recent history is on his side, too, as there have been six consecutive first-time major winners — Jason Day, Danny Willett, Johnson, Stenson, Jimmy Walker and Garcia. And Fowler said he’s ready to join what he calls the elite — the players who have won a major championship.
“The first thing is getting off to a good start Thursday, keeping that rolling and getting ourselves in contention Sunday,” said Fowler, who was just one shot out of the lead heading into the final round of the Masters before falling back with a 76. “There's a lot of golf to be played. But, yeah, I'm ready to be out there. Having a win this year at Honda, being in contention at majors in the past, and having The Players win has definitely done a lot for me. So, yeah, it's going to be a fun week. I like the way this course suits my game. “ … I’m not getting ahead of myself, but if I keep knocking on the door, putting myself in position, I can win a major.”
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