Rickie Fowler not getting ahead of himself after fast U.S. Open start

ERIN, Wis. — Here’s the problem with hype: It has an expiration date. At some point, it overstays its welcome, lingering in the air like month-old milk.

Perhaps no young golfer in recent years has been more hyped than Rickie Fowler. Consider it a combination of his sponsors’ initiative and his supporters’ loyalty. Since his early days on the PGA Tour, the orange-tinted frenzy around Fowler continued to peak until, well, it expired.

It’s not his fault. Not even close. Younger players with similar hype, notably Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, won major championships right away, emulating the early-career ascendancy of Tiger Woods.

Fowler has never won a major. Not yet, anyway. In 29 career major appearances, he still hasn’t raised any hardware above his head on a Sunday evening. He has come close, with five career top-5 finishes, including at all four majors three years ago. Unlike McIlroy and Spieth and other elite players, though, he has never experienced the mixed sense of delight and relief that comes with winning one.

And that’s perfectly all right.

Dustin Johnson, this week’s defending champion at the U.S. Open, didn’t claim a major until he was 32. Phil Mickelson was famously shut out until he was 33. Sergio Garcia didn’t get the monkey off his back until he was 37 at the Masters in April.

All of which explains why, after an opening-round 7-under-par 65 on Thursday, the 28-year-old Fowler wasn’t anxious or nervous about the prospect of going after the victory this weekend. In fact, he couldn’t have seemed calmer.

“The first thing is getting off to a good start Thursday, keeping that rolling and getting ourselves in contention Sunday,” he explained. “There’s a lot of golf to be played. But yeah, I’m ready to be out there. Having a win this year at Honda, being in contention at majors in the past, and having the Players win has definitely done a lot for me.”

Granted, this year’s edition of the U.S. Open, so far, appears easier than usual, but Fowler handled the first round like it was Tuesday morning at the local muni. He posted seven birdies, 11 pars and no bogeys in matching the lowest opening score in relation to par in modern-era tournament history.

His caddie, Joe Skovron, called it a “stress-free” day of golf, which previously would’ve sounded like a U.S. Open oxymoron.

“Just how you draw it up,” he said with a smile. “He just kind of dissected the golf course.”

Skovron has been alongside Fowler every step of the way, from a near miss at Royal Liverpool in 2014 in the Open Championship to another at Valhalla the next month to a torrid three-round start at this year’s Masters that ended in disappointment. He has seen the hype around his boss, but more importantly, understands the long-term view of the journey.

They both know that anyone in a rush to just win majors is probably focusing on the endgame more than the process.

“We still only have four PGA Tour wins,” Skovron continued. “We’re just trying to get wins at this point, you know? Obviously, he wants majors; that’s a big thing to him — he’s made that clear. I think it’s just a process to get there. You’ve got to be around these things and do it a bit. Some guys take longer. You look at how long it took Phil, and he still got five of them.

“Everybody is a little bit different. I think because we haven’t won 10, 12, 15 times, we’re still trying to get wins. It would be great to get a major in there while we’re trying to get them.”

Trying to focus on that process while everyone else keeps asking about the end result must be like driving the speed limit in the right lane on a highway while a procession of cars flash their bright lights behind you.

Now that Garcia has claimed a green jacket, Fowler is being hailed by some as the best player in the world without a major championship — golf’s version of the ultimate backhanded compliment.

He was asked after Thursday’s round whether he considers that more homage or burden. His answer was revealing.

“I take it as a compliment,” Fowler answered. “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.”

The hype surrounding Fowler has expired. He’s no longer the next big thing, no longer a young kid among the seasoned veterans.

What he understands, though, is that winning a major championship has no expiration date. He’d love for it to happen this week, but he knows — even after an opening 65 — there’s no race to the finish line.

“It’s cool, but it’s just the first round,” he said. “I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday.”