Thursday 22 February 2018

Fowler takes huge step towards Major goal

Rickie Fowler walks off the ninth green with Allison Stokke after shooting a seven-under-par 65 in the first round of the US Open at Erin Hills. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Rickie Fowler walks off the ninth green with Allison Stokke after shooting a seven-under-par 65 in the first round of the US Open at Erin Hills. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Give a top player wide fairways, soft greens and a zephyr breeze and he'll run riot.

And that's exactly what Rickie Fowler did at Erin Hills, opening with an immaculate, seven-under-par 65 to snatch the early clubhouse lead in the US Open - an event in which he has finished second but also missed the cut four times out of eight. The 28-year-old Californian looks like he'd be more at home in a skatepark than a 7,845-yard monster golf course in rural Wisconsin.

But he's not regarded as one of the best players in the game without a Major for nothing and he took advantage of perfect conditions for the early starters, clocking up seven birdies as he missed just two fairways and three greens in regulation in a ball-striking masterclass.

A tally of only 27 putts did the rest of the damage but it was clear that it was Fowler's efficiency from tee to green that gave him an early two-stroke lead over compatriots Brian Harman and Brooks Koepka and Southport's Tommy Fleetwood.

The big surprise of the morning was that defending champion and world No 1 Dustin Johnson tangled too many times with the fescue and struggled on the greens to boot, signing for a listless, three-over 75.

"I just didn't putt very well," Johnson said after taking 33 putts. "I missed a lot of really good opportunities. That was the big key for me. If I don't three-putt, I shoot even. But if I just make one or two of the good looks I have, it's a couple under. I didn't hit it great, but I hit it good enough to shoot a good score."

There was a similar complaint from Jordan Spieth, who missed just one fairway but had 32 putts in a one-over-par 73

"I hit the ball phenomenal, just didn't make anything," the Texan said. "And that's just all it was. I missed one fairway today, which is the best driving round that I've had maybe in my life. And struck the ball great from there.

"I had 15 looks at birdie today and all of them were actual makeable putts and I only made one of them. Just a really off day putting, but I'll go figure it out."

Spieth's pal Fowler showed in 2014 that he can be a force in Majors, finishing in the top five in all four that season.

His victory in The Players at Sawgrass in 2015, which coincided with an unfortunately-timed magazine survey branding him the most over-rated player in the game, elevated him to a new level.

Now he's given himself a great platform to turn his obvious talent into a Major win, but he was cautious despite compiling an immaculate card.

"It was nice," said Fowler, who went out in 32 after birdies at the 11th, 12th, 14th and 18th before picking up further birdies at the first, second and seventh.

"You don't get many rounds at the US Open that are stress-free. Just did a good job, knew I needed to drive it well, and from there I was just able to continue to swing well and hit good shots, rolling a couple in.

"So, it was a simple day when you look back on it, how we kind of pieced our way around the golf course. It was a lot easier said than done."

Asked about the best-in-the-game-without-a-Major tag, he said: "I take it as a compliment. 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's definitely a lot of golf to be played."

The highlight of Fowler's round didn't even yield a birdie but his play at the 451-yard fourth spoke volumes about his strategy and the quality of his ball-striking.

"I hit 2-iron off the tee, even though it was a little bit more hurt today, so I knew it was going to put us further back," he said.

"So we had 195 to the hole with the wind in off the left, and just hit a nice choke-down cut five-iron. Like I said, just hit our number.

"I think we missed our number by two yards, which from that distance with five-iron back in off the left and trying to cut it, was pretty spot on."

Fleetwood (26) was thrilled with his 67 in just his second US Open.

"You don't really think about shooting five-under at the US Open," the world No 33 said.

"Seven-under is ridiculous. But it was clearly a very good morning for scoring."

Patrick Reed was just three shots off the pace after a 68 as red numbers lit up the leaderboard in sunny conditions with only a 10mph breeze bothering the early starters.

One player who wasn't troubled by the deep rough that cost Johnson dear early in his round was six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson. The 46-year-old eventually withdrew to attend his daughter's graduation in California and was replaced in the field by Mexico's Roberto Diaz.

The five-time Major winner needs his national title to complete the Career Grand Slam and had hoped that a weather delay might give him a chance to make it to Erin Hills by private jet for his late afternoon tee time.

But conditions were perfect and he withdrew early in the morning Wisconsin time without bothering to crank up the plane.

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