Fowler bursts to lead with 7-under 65

Writing from Erin, Wisconsin

Thursday, June 15, 2017 

Is there really a new era at the United States Golf Association?

One designed to help players avoid penalties rather then playing gotcha?

One featuring dozens of competitors under par and roars, rather than groans, from galleries?

One day at the 117th United States Open doesn’t say that definitively, but sympathy, rather than sternness, was in evidence on Thursday at Erin Hills.

And that doesn’t even take into account the expression of sympathy from the USGA to the pilot of a blimp that crashed about a mile feast of the golf course in the morning. The pilot, unidentified, was burned when his advertising blimp went head first into a grass field. He was airlifted to a hospital via medical helicopter.

The Open’s leader is very much identified. It’s Rickie Fowler, who is either searching for his first major championship or chasing his second, depending on one’s view of the Players Championship.

Fowler went around Erin Hills – stretched to an Open-record 7,845 yards on a windy day – in 7-under-par 65, only the third 7-under opening score in an Open. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf shot 7-under 63s on Thursday at Baltusrol in 1980.

Half the world is right behind him and under par. Well, an Open-record 44 players were under par – and another 16 at par 72 – by the conclusion of play, with Paul Casey and Xander Schauffele scoring 6-under 66 to trail Fowler by a stroke with the best rounds of the afternoon. That’s a record 60 players at par or better.

A gaggle at 5-under 67 includes Brian Harman, Brooks Koepka, and Tommy Fleetwood, the best player you’ve never heard of. (The European Tour standout is 33rd in the world rankings.) Patrick Reed and Kevin Na are among a quartet at 4-under 68.

By U.S. Open standards, the scoreboard’s red numbers resemble – speaking of Harman – the John Deere Classic or the old Buick Open, even with the course longer than the line of parched patrons waiting for water on an 85-degree day.

What gives? Simple. Soft greens.

The 1.84 inches of rain that fell from Monday night through Wednesday took the course’s firm greens and made them nearly as plush as “Fescue,” the mascot cow on sale in the merchandise tent. While the fescue fairways continued to run, the soaking allowed the field to throw darts at the bentgrass greens, and stick them.

So, at least for one day, the Open wasn’t a torture chamber for all, but a pleasure palace for most. Throw out erstwhile Masters winner Danny Willett, whose untidy 81 raised eyebrows, and a trio of lessers who also were in the 80s, and the field found Erin Hills and its 40-plus yard wide fairways far more docile than the usual Open course, which features handcuffs on the first tee and other instruments of mayhem along the way.

Fowler had no truck with the potential problems, tooling around without a bogey.

“You don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free,” Fowler said. “Simple day when you look back on it.”

As are all rounds that open with three birdies in five holes. That, and birdieing all four par-5s, the only one of the leaders to do so. And hitting copious numbers of fairways (12 of 14) and greens (15). Do all that, and a 65 is possible.

“I still missed some putts, but it’s just nice to go out and actually execute the game plan and not have to think about ‘what if that one went in’ or anything like that,” Fowler said.

Elsewhere, defending champion and top-ranked Dustin Johnson scored 3-over 75 thanks to visits with heavy fescue, Masters champion Sergio Garcia opened with a smart 2-under 70, and local fan favorite Steve Stricker settled for par 72 after making birdies on the first two holes.

The lack of ferocity in the tenor of the greens is matched by the thin resumes on the top of the leader board. Garcia, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk are among those tied for 18th. Nobody above them has won one of the four professional majors.

Fowler takes the “best player not to have won a major” as a compliment, which is wise. He also knows one round, even at 7-under, does not guarantee a trophy in his hands.

“It is always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf,” Fowler said. “But I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday.”

Around the Open

Scottie Scheffler is the low amateur at 3-under 69 in a field of 14 ams. ... Canadian Adam Hadwin birdied six straight holes to tie an Open record and nearly birdied a seventh, running a 90-foot-plus putt within an inch of the hole to the right. He missed the par comebacker and settled for bogey, but added another birdie and finished at 4-under 68, in a tie for seventh. ... While some hospitality areas sold out, tickets were still being sold at the gate on Thursday. Attendance was supposed to be limited to 35,000.

Tim Cronin

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