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.”


Rickie Fowler wins Honda Classic to end PGA Tour drought

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Rickie Fowler didn’t care about pretty. He cared about winning.

Staked to a 4-shot lead, Fowler hit one putt into a sprinkler hole and a tee shot into the water. But when his lead was cut to 1 shot, Fowler answered with two big birdie putts to regain control and finished off a 4-shot victory in the Honda Classic.

The bogey-bogey finish kept him from setting the 72-hole record at PGA National.

That wasn’t important. At his feet was a crystal trophy, something he hasn’t owned in 13 months, even as peers Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy kept piling them up. It was Fowler’s turn Sunday.

“Whether I’m talked about with those guys or not, I just want to play the best that I can and keep pushing myself and, ultimately, just keep trying to put myself in position to win and start collecting more of these,” Fowler said, tapping the trophy.

He closed with a 1-over 71 for a 4-shot victory over Gary Woodland, the only player to seriously challenge him, and Morgan Hoffmann.

Fowler faced the strongest wind of the week at PGA National, and he didn’t feel as though he had control of his swing the way he did all week. But the 28-year-old kid with fashion flair still has a knack for clutch moments, whether it was the 30-foot birdie putt on No. 8 or the two winning moments: a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 12 and a 25-foot birdie putt on the 13th.

This was more substance than style.

“I didn’t play great,” Fowler said. “It wasn’t a pretty round. But we got the job done. A win is a win.”

Fowler effectively ended it with a shot over the water on the 16th to 3 feet that stretched his lead to 5 shots with two holes to play.

Woodland appeared to have second place wrapped up until he three-putted the 17th and then tried to lay up on the par-5 18th and came up short into the water. He closed with another bogey for a 69. He had to share second place — the difference of $128,000 — with Hoffmann, who missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 18th.

PGA champion Jimmy Walker was lurking on the fringe of contention until tee shots into the water on the 15th and 17th holes, which cost him five shots.

Tyrrell Hatton of England, who played in the final group in his first PGA Tour event in Florida, was out of the picture quickly. He still had a chance to finish alone in second, which would have gone a long way toward securing a PGA Tour card, until he missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the 17th.

Fowler even got into the act when it no longer mattered. He hit his tee shot into the water on the 17th hole and made bogey, then hit a wedge into the bunker on the 18th and closed with another bogey to finish at 12-under 268.

Fowler jokingly referred to his “small collection” of trophies on Saturday evening, though it was important. He had gone 13 months and 25 starts worldwide without a victory as everyone around him was winning multiple times.

It was his first PGA Tour victory since the Deutsche Bank Championship in September 2015. A 4-shot lead, which he built with two late birdies Saturday afternoon, allowed him to play smart and safe.

It just always didn’t work out that way.

He went over the green on the par-4 fourth and tried to putt it up the slope, except that it went into a sprinkler hole and led to bogey. Two holes later, Fowler hooked his tee shot into the water on the tough par-4 sixth and made double bogey.

He bounced back with a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 8, only to drop another shot on the ninth.

Woodland hit wedge into 4 feet on the 13th for a birdie to get to 10 under, suddenly one shot back of Fowler. Just like that, it was over. Fowler leaned over on his putter as he watched his 40-foot on No. 12 drop into the cup, and though he went long with a wedge on the 13th, he dropped that one in from 25 feet for birdie.

Woodland had reasonable looks at birdie over the next four holes and couldn’t get any to drop. He powered his 20-foot attempt on the 17th about 6 feet by the hole, ending is last hope.

“I thought all of them looked pretty good,” he said of his birdie chances. “It was a little deflating on 18. Thought I hit a pretty good drive and thought I would have a chance, and I just couldn’t get home and laid up in the water, which was bad.”

Jhonattan Vegas made a hole-in-one on the 15th hole and closed with a 64 to tie for fourth.

Fowler’s victory and Woodland’s tie for second knocked Charles Howell III and Hudson Swafford out of the top 10 in the FedEx Cup standings, keeping them from qualifying for the Mexico Championship next week, the first World Golf Championship of the year.