ERIN, Wis. – Rickie Fowler might win a major championship someday, maybe even next month at the British Open at Royal Birkdale. But for a high-wattage player still lacking one of golf’s most coveted titles, Sunday at Erin Hills was unquestionably a squandered chance.
You’d think it would sting. But pity parties aren’t Fowler’s M.O.
“I feel like golf-wise I’m playing at the highest level,” Fowler said after signing for an even-par 72 that left him tied for fifth place, six shots behind champion Brooks Koepka. “If you look at the negatives too much, you’re going to be stuck doing that the whole time.”
Fowler sprinted to the first-round lead and entered Sunday two shots back, in prime to position to claim the 117th U.S. Open and shake the major monkey from his back. But he never found a rhythm while hitting just 11 greens in regulation and enduring two momentum-killing bogeys on the back nine as Koepka pulled away. “I wish I would have been able to give myself a few more looks out there today,” Fowler said.
It felt like this might be Fowler’s day. He arrived at the practice range sporting an orange hat-white shirt-orange pants ensemble–bold, for sure, though toned down from his early days on Tour when he’d go head-to-toe tangerine on Sundays. As Fowler warmed up, his swing coach, Butch Harmon, observed every cut. One stall over, Koepka, another Harmon pupil, hammered away, but the venerable instructor kept eyes squarely on Rickie. At the end of the session, student and teacher exchanged a macho handshake-chest bump. Go time.
Fowler teed off at 2:33 alongside Si Woo Kim, who last month won the Players Championship. Kim is a rising 21-year-old, but most fans along the ropes weren’t craning their necks to see him. Fowler is the people’s choice. At the 1st, a par-5, Fowler ripped a drive down the middle and curled in a 17-footer for birdie, his third 4 on the opener in four days. The fans roared. Their man was just one back.
Watching Fowler on the short par-4 2nd, and clad head-to-toe in orange, was 13-year-old Tommy Philpot, of St. John, Ind. Tommy’s been all-in on Fowler ever since getting a close-up at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, about an hour’s drive up Lake Michigan. “He was signing autographs for everyone and I’ve liked him ever since,” Tommy said.
Fowler’s popularity is undeniable, and although he’s stoic inside the ropes, he relishes the fan appreciation. This week he brought a Packers-themed green-and-gold bag to further endear the locals. A sampling of what he heard Sunday from the fans:
Wisconsin loves you Rickiiieee!
Rickie is for the boys!
Love your Snapchat Rickiiiiieeee!
Fowler whiffed a seven-footer or birdie on 2, then saved pars on 3 and 4. On the par-4 5th, he drove it into an awkward spot in a fairway bunker and blasted out. As his white shirt fluttered in the wind, he blew the five-foot par-saver.
At the par-5 7th he strolled by Tommy along the ropes and made birdie. Fowler played the par-5s at 11 under for the week, and after turning in 35, he was three shots back and still in it. But on 12 he blew a lag putt more than 10 feet past the hole and missed the comebacker. After scraping out a disappointing par on the par-5 14th, he bogeyed 15 to squelch his chances. “It was just tough out there,” he said.
On 18 fans in the packed bleachers stood and cheered as Fowler strolled up to the green, and they stood and cheered again after he brushed in a birdie putt. His new girlfriend, fitness model and former pole-vaulter Allison Stokke, met him near the green and the couple strolled hand-in-hand to the scorer’s barn. If Fowler was dejected, he didn’t show it.
“You have to measure success in different ways, not just by winning, just because that doesn’t happen a whole lot,” he said. “You kind of have to say, Hey, it’s a major. We played well this week.”
Yes, it was a major, but on Sunday an excellent opportunity vaporized in the warm Wisconsin air. Surely there will be more. On to Birkdale.