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.

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“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.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.