ERIN, Wis. – Two years ago, Rickie Fowler traded his nice-guy demeanor for a little bit of a chip on his shoulder one week in May. He had just been voted “Most Overrated” by his PGA Tour peers in a poll conducted by a golf magazine.
So, all he did was go out and win The Players Championship in a playoff with what might have been the best closing stretch of golf ever seen at TPC Sawgrass. He played as if he were on a mission.
At Erin Hills this week, the talk is about Fowler being the heir apparent as the “Best Player Who Hasn’t Won a Major” since Sergio Garcia, who held some kind of career achievement in that category, put on the green jacket in April at the Masters.
Fowler had a little attitude working again here at Erin Hills. He took advantage of un-Open-like receptive greens and calm conditions Thursday morning to shoot 7-under 65, with no bogeys, and lead the National Open. (First-round scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH; today’s tee times: http://bit.ly/1sEuFWl)
The last six major winners were first-timers, including former Best No-Major candidates such as Jason Day, Jimmy Walker, Henrik Stenson and, of course, Garcia. Fowler played as if he wants to shed his newly inherited tag. At 28, he seems too young to get stuck with that label, but really, we’re just about out of legitimate nominees who have been out here longer than 15 minutes.
“I take it as a compliment,” said Fowler, who finished fifth or better in all four majors in 2014. “There are a lot of really good players who haven’t won majors. So, it would be nice to get rid of that at some point. I’m not saying this is or isn’t the week, but I like the course, and we’re off to a good start.”
He started at the 10th, then birdied three of his next four holes en route to a back-nine 32.
“It was amazing,” said Jon Rahm, who was paired with Fowler. “It seemed like he was playing Xbox instead of golf. He played brilliantly today.”
Fowler has played better than you might think this year. He tied for fourth in Phoenix, won the Honda Classic despite some shaky final-round play, contended at the Masters until a closing 76 dropped him into a tie for 11th and was co-runner-up two weeks ago at the Memorial Tournament. All parts of his game were in top gear in the opening round.
“At the second hole, he’s got 40 yards and he’s got (a pin) about 6 or 7 feet from the edge, and he hits it to 2 feet,” Rahm said. “It was unbelievable how hard the shot was.”
At the third and fourth holes, Fowler impressed Rahm with his long-iron play.
“He must’ve had 250 yards on No. 3 and the same on 4, a long iron into a narrow green,” the young Spaniard said. “He was spot-on every time; every iron shot was flushed – perfect distance, great line. He’s an incredible putter. It was an unbelievable round of golf.”
Even Fowler conceded that his round was stress-free, a rarity at a U.S. Open.
“It’s a simple day when you look back on it and how we pieced our way around the course,” he said. “It’s a lot easier said than done.”
It’s a nice start, but this U.S. Open is still young.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle