ERIN, Wis. — Golf’s biggest rock star wears brighter colors than your grandma.
He tore apart what is supposed to be the hardest setup in golf and he did it while wooing fans young and old.
“Wow, look at that smile,” said one star-struck spectator as Fowler joked with caddie Joe Skovron off the 8th green.
That fan was a grown man.
Fowler had much to smile about Thursday, shooting a seven-under 65 to open this 117th U.S. Open. He didn’t make a bogey, missed only two fairways and three greens (and two of those greens he missed by just inches). His seven-under effort tied the U.S. Open record for first-round score in relation to par, and was just the ninth first-round 65 in tournament history.
When Fowler walks down the fairway, he’s like Bono walking down Broadway, just without the Platinum records. Fowler has won four times on Tour, including the 2015 Players Championship, but still lacks a major title. That must sting, especially given the last six majors have been won by a first-time champion.
He’s a couple of years removed from his four top-five finishes in the 2014 majors. At the Masters in April he was tied for the 36-hole lead and one off the pace after 54 holes. Then came his Sunday 76, which was just two strokes shy of the highest score of the day. He’s missed the cut at the last two U.S. Opens.
Earlier this week 11 players sat down for scheduled, pre-Open press conferences—the likes of Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Henrik Stenson (even Davis Love III’s son, Dru, took the podium). Fowler, the No. 9 player in the world, was not on the roster.
On Thursday, Fowler headlined an international group that included Spaniard Jon Rahm and Japanese sensation Hideki Matsuyama. Rahm kicked his bag and tossed his putter as he bogeyed four of the first eight holes and was 10 back of Fowler through 11. He eventually signed for a 76. Matsuyama spent more time in the fescue than he did in the fairway early in the round. He shot 74.
Then there was Fowler, the master marketer, strolling along with a stone-cold demeanor and green and gold staff bag, a nod to the Green Bay Packers and the hometown fans here in southeast Wisconsin. The gallery lapped it up.
“It definitely hasn’t hurt [having the bag],” Fowler said. “Anytime you can get the local fans on your side the better.”
Fowler made four birdies in his opening nine — he played the back side first — and added three more on the second nine. He said he stuck to his game plan. He picked apart the course with his wedges, and he birdied all four par-5s.
After Fowler tapped in for par on the 9th, his final hole, the packed grandstands erupted. Everybody loves Rickie, and they let him know it.
“Go Cowboys!” one fan yelled, a reference to Fowler’s college days at Oklahoma State.
“Go get ’em, Rick!”
Fowler shook hands and made his way to the walkway under the bleachers, where he was met by girlfriend Allison Stokke. He and Stokke led a group of two-dozen media members through a sea of screaming fans. Fowler walked across the 10th tee, in front of the first tee box and into a comfy chair inside a Fox Sports studio.
Fowler’s star power has perhaps never been more apparent than this week, with neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson in a major field for the first time since 1994. Fowler’s helping to fill a major void; he’s just missing the major hardware.
“I take it as a compliment,” said Fowler, when asked about being commonly referred to as the best player without a major. “There are a lot of really good players out here who haven’t won a major. So it would be nice to get rid of that at some point.”
Three days to go.