Fowler downplays 65: 'It's just the first round'

By Rex HoggardJune 15, 2017, 8:41 pm

ERIN, Wis. – There’s something to be said for not poking the bear, and Rickie Fowler has played enough U.S. Opens to know he shouldn’t combine good fortune with gloating.

You go 'round a U.S. Open venue without making a bogey, well, that’s grit and a game that may well be ready for Sunday pressure. You add seven birdies to that card and savor your “stress-free” day, man, that’s tempting fate.

But before USGA chief Mike Davis convenes a task force to put the bite back into Erin Hills, Fowler did his very best to walk back his record round.

“It’s cool,” he said of his opening 65 that tied the lowest first-round card in relation to par at golf’s toughest test. “But it's just the first round. It’s always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf. But I'd rather be remembered for something that's done on Sunday.”

On Thursday, the great unknown that was Erin Hills turned out to be a gettable golf course, at least for those in the early wave who enjoyed calm winds from the preferred direction, putting surfaces softened to an emerald green by overnight rains and some user-friendly hole locations.

The USGA, however, has never been fans of too much of a good thing, and players were more than willing to play both sides of the fence.


U.S. Open: Scores | Live blog: Day 1 | Full coverage


“This feels like a Tour event right now,” Brandt Snedeker reasoned. “But it will change by Sunday. I’d be shocked if 7 under wins.”

Call it political correctness, call it self-preservation, it’s always best not to give Davis and his crew a reason to start experimenting with some of those 8,000-plus-yard tees in an effort to stem that scoring tide.

Besides, if Fowler’s performance on Day 1 has the USGA’s best and brightest concerned that their new toy wasn’t up to championship quality, know that the 28-year-old played the opening frame like a guy who was made to win the U.S. Open.

He connected on 12 of 14 drives, 15 of 18 approach shots and was third in the field in strokes gained putting. Even as the winds freshened late in his round, he showed impressive poise with birdies at all the right places – all four par 5s – and sidestepping any potential disaster.

“I feel like I have great control of the ball right now and distance control, which is big on a lot of little sections out here going into greens, especially with the wind picking up,” Fowler said.

If it’s a major and Fowler has made his way into contention the narrative is as predictable as a Wisconsin summer. All the talent, all the potential, all the flash has made the American a regular conversation piece when the golf world gathers for a major.

Will he win a major? Is he the best player without a major?

The latter has become something of a backhanded compliment in recent years, a yoke worn by many from Sergio Garcia, who joined the major club in April at Augusta National, to Lee Westwood; but for American fans Fowler has emerged as a consensus pick.

That take reached a crescendo in 2014 when he finished inside the top five at all four Grand Slam stops, and even though he’s failed to finish in the top 10 at a major since, he’s remained part of the conversation, and that’s fine with Fowler.

“I take it as a compliment,” he said when asked the inevitable. “There are a lot of really good players out here that haven't won a major. So it would be nice to get rid of that at some point. I'm not saying that this is the week or isn't the week. But I like the way this golf course suits me, and we're off to a good start.”

There is no doubt the heightened expectations are justified. Although he’d missed two of his last four weekends heading into the year’s second Grand Shindig, he finished runner-up two weeks ago at the Memorial and has excelled this year at some crucial U.S. Open requirements – most notably ball-striking (he’s second on Tour in strokes gained total and seventh in strokes gained putting).

He’s also worked to become more comfortable traversing the game’s most scrutinized punchbowls. He and caddie Joe Skovron worked hard coming up with a game plan for this week’s championship and even in changing conditions on Thursday he didn’t waver.

He’s relaxed, rooming this week with his #SB2K17 running mate Justin Thomas at a nearby house, and most importantly he’s become adept at ignoring those external expectations.

On four occasions on Thursday, Fowler added the caveat that “there’s still a lot of golf to play,” or something similar. He’s all too aware of the inherent pitfalls of winning major championships, even with the cushion of a 7-under 65 on Day 1. Cautious optimism is probably the best way to describe Fowler, which is understandable considering that in his last five rounds at the U.S. Open before Thursday he was 27 over par.

In short, he knows as well as anyone that the USGA gives and the USGA takes with equal abandon.

This week feels different, thanks in large part to a putter that converted five birdie attempts from outside 7 feet, and while he was quick to keep his start in perspective, he didn’t leave any room for ambiguity when asked if he was ready to win that elusive first major.

“Yeah, I'm ready to be out there,” he said. “Having a win this year at the Honda [Classic], 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.”

If that doesn’t exactly sound like a man poised for his Grand Slam breakthrough, Fowler could be forgiven for taking a measured approach. The USGA is watching, after all.

Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 4:24 pm

The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.

The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.

In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.

Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:

Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties

Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?

By Ryan LavnerNovember 21, 2017, 2:36 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.

Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.

Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.  

Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.   

Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.


FALLING

J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.  

Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.

Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.

DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.

LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.

Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 12:59 am

Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.

"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"

Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern architects.

"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.

"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.

Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.

Class of 2011: Who's got next?

By Rex HoggardNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

The sprawling legacy of the Class of 2011 can be traced to any number of origins, but for some among what is arguably the most prolific class ever, it all began in June 2009.

The 99-player field that descended on Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., for the AJGA’s FootJoy Invitational included Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and so many others, like Michael Kim, who up to that moment had experienced the weight of the ’11 class only from afar.

“It was that year that Justin won the FootJoy Invitational and that got him into [the Wyndham Championship]," Kim recalled. "That was my first invitational and I was like 'these guys are so good’ and I was blown away by what they were shooting. I remember being shocked by how good they were at that time.”

Tom Lovelady, who like former Cal-Berkeley Bear Kim is now on the PGA Tour, remembers that tournament as the moment when he started to realize how special this particular group could be, as well as the genesis of what has become lifetime friendships.

In the third round, Lovelady was paired with Spieth.

“We kind of hit it off and became friends after that," Lovelady recalled. "The final round I got paired with Justin Thomas and we became friends. On the 10th hole I asked [Thomas], ‘Where do you want to go to school?’ He said, ‘Here. Here or Alabama.’ My first reaction was, ‘Don’t go to Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I wanted to go there. I knew the class was strong and they only had so many spots, but that’s where I really wanted to go.”

Both ended up in Tuscaloosa, and both won an NCAA title during their time in college. They also solidified a friendship that endures to this day in South Florida where they live and train together.

While the exploits of Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger are well documented, perhaps the most impressive part of the ’11 class is the depth that continues to develop at the highest level.

To many, it’s not a question as to whether the class will have another breakout star, it’s when and who?



There’s a good chance that answer could have been found on the tee sheet for last week’s RSM Classic, a lineup that included Class of ’11 alums Lovelady; Kim; Ollie Schniederjans, a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech; Patrick Rodgers, Stanford's all-time wins leader alongside Tiger Woods; and C.T. Pan, a four-time All-American at the University of Washington.

Lovelady earned his Tour card this year via the Web.com Tour, while Schniederjans and Rodgers are already well on their way to the competitive tipping point of Next Level.

Rodgers, who joined the Tour in 2015, dropped a close decision at the John Deere Classic in July, where he finished a stroke behind winner Bryson DeChambeau; and Schniederjans had a similar near-miss at the Wyndham Championship.

To those who have been conditioned by nearly a decade of play, it’s no surprise that the class has embraced a next-man-up mentality. Nor is it any surprise, at least for those who were forged by such an exceedingly high level of play, that success has seemed to be effortless.

“First guy I remember competing against at a high level was Justin. We were playing tournaments at 10, 11 years old together,” Rodgers said. “He was really, really good at that age and I wasn’t really good and so he was always my benchmark and motivated me to get better.”

That symbiotic relationship hasn’t changed. At every level the group has been challenged, and to a larger degree motivated, by the collective success.

By all accounts, it was Spieth who assumed the role of standard-bearer when he joined the Tour in 2013 and immediately won. For Rodgers, however, the epiphany arrived a year later as he was preparing to play a college event in California and glanced up at a television to see his former rival grinding down the stretch at Augusta National.

“Jordan’s leading the Masters. A couple years before we’d been paired together battling it out at this exact same college event,” he laughed. “I think I even won the tournament. It was just crazy for me to see someone who is such a peer, someone I was so familiar with up there on the biggest stage.”

It was a common theme for many among the Class of ’11 as Spieth, Thomas and others emerged, and succeeded, on a world stage. If familiarity can breed contempt, in this case it created a collective confidence.

Success on Tour has traditionally come slowly for new pros, the commonly held belief being that it took younger players time to evolve into Tour professionals. That’s no longer the case, the byproduct of better coaching, training and tournaments for juniors and top-level amateurs.

But for the Class of ’11, that learning curve was accelerated by the economies of scale. The quality and quantity of competition for the class has turned out to be a fundamental tenet to the group’s success.

“Since the mindset of the class has been win, win, win, you don’t know anything other than that, it’s never been just be good enough,” Lovelady said. “You don’t think about being top 125 [on the FedExCup points list], you think about being as high as you can instead of just trying to make the cut, or just keep your card. It’s all you’ve known since you were 14, 15 years old.”

It’s a unique kind of competitive Darwinism that has allowed the class to separate itself from others, an ever-present reality that continues to drive the group.

“It was constantly in my head motivating me,” Rodgers said. “Then you see Jordan turn pro and have immediate success and Justin turn pro and have immediate success. It’s kind of the fuel that drives me. What makes it special is these guys have always motivated me, maybe even more so than someone like Tiger [Woods].”

The domino effect seems obvious, inevitable even, with the only unknown who will be next?

“That’s a good question; I’d like for it to be myself,” Lovelady said. “But it’s hard to say it’s going to be him, it’s going to be him when it could be him. There are just so many guys.”