Rickie Fowler shot a stress-free 66 to begin this U.S. Open—an ideal start for what could be his breakthrough week.

By Daniel Rapaport
June 13, 2019

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Rickie Fowler stands on the podium, completely at ease. To be fair, it’s not a hard situation to feel comfortable in. He’s in his home state of California. The waves are crashing gently off Stillwater Cove behind him. It’s a cool-but-comfortable 65 degrees. His mullet-ish hair is blowing softly in the breeze. He’s answering interview questions he’s been asked 100 times.

And he just shot a five-under 66 to begin the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Life is good.

“Thursday is just about getting off to a good start,” Fowler said. Mission accomplished.

As the saying goes: You can’t win a major championship on Thursday morning, but you certainly can lose it. Applied to Fowler: You can’t win your first major championship, and flip the narrative surrounding your career, and join Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in the "I’ve Won a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach" club, on Thursday morning. But you can certainly lose it. He did nothing of the sort.

There were six birdies and one bogey and zero worries. And while Pebble Beach didn’t show its teeth on Thursday morning, this is still a U.S. Open. The rough is still, as Brooks Koepka so eloquently put it earlier this week, juicy. The greens are still lightning quick and quite tricky. One does not simply roll out of bed and shoot 66 at this golf course, no matter how perfect the conditions may be. He knows this better than anyone—before today, Fowler had played just three PGA Tour rounds at Pebble Beach. His average score was 72.33, and those were in benign AT&T Pro-Am conditions.

The six-plus shot improvement is a testament to how well Fowler struck it while playing alongside Jason Day—who has Tiger Woods’s old caddie, Stevie Williams on the bag this week—and Si Woo Kim.

“I felt like that was about the highest score I could have shot today,” Fowler said sheepishly after the round. It’s a hard thing to hear yourself say: five under is the worst I could have shot in a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. “Just happy with how stress-free and easy it was.”

It could have been lower, too. Fowler striped his tee shot off the treacherously beautiful par-5 18th and had just a 4-iron into the green. He tugged it a bit and found the left bunker, hardly an easy up-and-in, but came up with a saucy effort from there to set up a great look for 65. It caught the left lip and wouldn’t fall. He didn’t react. It’s all good.

“Would have liked to get that one up and in on 18,” he admitted.

Fowler was tied with Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen for the lead as he wrapped up his extensive post-round duties—interviews with Sky Sports, then Fox Sports, then Sirius radio, then a quick Q&A with assembled reporters, then a full press conference in the media center, then signing golf balls for the children who chanted "Rickie! Rickie!"—and this, being near the lead at a major, is hardly an unfamiliar position for him.

Just two years ago at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, a golf course halfway across the country but just as well on a different planet, he held the solo lead after Thursday by way of a seven-under 65. He played the rest of the tournament in just three under and finished tied for fifth, well behind Koepka’s 16-under total. In 2014, he finished in the top five in each of the four major championships; the only other players to ever do that in the modern era are Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. At the 2018 Masters, he summoned a gutsy birdie on the 72nd hole but wound up one shot short of a playoff.

These close calls, as well as his status as golf’s Commercial King, are the reason it’s common knowledge that Fowler hasn’t won a major. He has five PGA Tour victories. That’s the same number as Ben Crane and Jonathan Byrd, and we don’t talk about Ben Crane and Jonathan Byrd not having won any majors. That’s because we don’t expect anything of them at majors. We expect Fowler to contend at majors because, well, he just keeps on doing it. The only thing he hasn’t done is win one.

It’s going to happen. Eventually. It has to. It feels like forever ago that he burst onto the scene wearing those flat brim hats and orange from head-to-toe, but he’s still just 30 years old. He has plenty of time and plenty of majors left in his prime. One of these days he’ll kick down the door. When that happens is anyone’s guess. It could well be this week or it could well be in 2029. Such is golf.

One thing that was clear, though, as Rickie Fowler stood on that podium: he’s certainly not stressing about it.

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