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.
“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.