ST. LOUIS – Legend has it that pizza ovens were designed to produce the kind of heat found this week at Bellerive Country Club. In short, it’s warm out there.
But the atmosphere for the opening round of the 100th PGA Championship on Thursday was especially stifling. Rickie Fowler’s good friend Jarrod Lyle, a two-time winner on the Nationwide Tour, died late Wednesday. Last week, Lyle and his family announced that he would end further treatment for acute myeloid leukemia and undergo palliative care at his home in Australia. Fowler spoke with Lyle last Friday.
Scripted to wear a blue shirt on Thursday, Fowler switched to yellow, a color that Lyle often wore, and moved the awareness pin to the front of his cap.
“You know, it's definitely tough, especially talking with some of the guys that knew Jarrod better than most out here,” Fowler said. “You also think about it as far as Jarrod wouldn't want us out here feeling sorry for him or feeling bad or anything. You'd probably come out here and kick us in the butt and tell us to man up and go have some fun.”
If that’s the case, Jarrod Lyle certainly is smiling down on Fowler. A heavy heart notwithstanding, the No. 9-ranked player in the world scorched boiling Bellerive, carding an opening-round 65 to trail first-round leader Gary Woodland by one stroke (scores).
The trip was cathartic in some way, Fowler suggested. The pursuit of his first major championship doesn’t allow for distractions. It requires a swing thought and focused routine for every shot. At the same time, the loss of his friend took Fowler’s mind away from the pressure and demands, on the long walks in between, before they got spoiled.
“Obviously that's not something that's easy to deal with … It can work as a benefit if you go about it the right way,” Fowler said.
Of course, the right way to go about winning a major championship is to be leading at the end.
Fowler’s brand is among the best known in golf, certified by 3 million followers on Twitter and Instagram. He is universally regarded for his skill and comportment. His four PGA Tour victories include the 2015 Players Championship, and he recently got engaged to fitness model Allison Stokke. Let’s be honest: the 29-year-old former Oklahoma State star has a few things going for him.
What he doesn’t have, despite frequent fly-bys and frustrating misses, is a major title.
“I always have hope,” said Fowler, who had six birdies and just one bogey on the opening card. “I know Phil Mickelson didn't win [a major] until his 30s.
“I don't know the exact numbers, but it's not something I necessarily worry about. Keep putting ourselves in position, get in contention. We have had plenty of runner-ups. Jack [Nicklaus] had a lot of runner-ups. We'll just keep beating down that door.”
At the Masters in April, Fowler declared that he was “ready to win a major.” On Sunday at Augusta National, he acted like it, covering the last 11 holes in 6 under par, including a birdie at No. 18 to force the issue. But when Patrick Reed made his par putt, Fowler was second, the third time he has been second in a major, the eighth time he’s been fifth or better.
At the U.S. Open in June, his final-round 65 was dazzling, but not enough to smother a third-round 84. At Carnoustie in July, he was in the mix again, opening with 70-69, but closing with 73-72. In 2014, he finished T-5, T-2, T-2 and T-3 in the majors, in that order. He keeps a-knockin …
But he can’t get in. Perhaps Bellerive, where Nick Price won his first major in 1992, will be different. Perhaps it starts with 65 and doesn’t end. Perhaps Fowler can honor his friend in the best way imaginable, by kicking the door down. Perhaps …
But this was Day One at a major championship, so perhaps we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Fowler doesn’t.
“No, I'm definitely happy, but Thursday you can't go win the golf tournament. You can definitely take yourself out of it and lose it,” he said. “So, we took care of what we needed to take care of today, and we move on to Friday and go do what we need to go do tomorrow.”
What needs to be done, Jarrod Lyle might add, is pretty obvious, really. Kick butt.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD