Schmoldt: Fowler's 65 part of US Open's wacky first day

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Eric Schmoldt
Friday, June 16, 2017

ERIN—Golf isn’t supposed to be as stress-free as Rickie Fowler made it look Thursday.

Especially not at Erin Hills. And definitely not during a first round of the U.S. Open, when Erin Hills was playing longer than any other track in tournament history.

Ask Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world who shot a 3-over 75 and will head to today just hoping to fight back and make the cut.

Or Jason Day, a major champion who, for the first time in his career, suffered two triple-bogeys in one round.

Or Rory McIlroy, who drove the No. 2 green, made eagle and then saw everything go haywire from there in shooting 78.

And ask Edgerton native Steve Stricker, who cruised to a birdie-birdie start to energize a giant contingent of in-state fans only to scrap and claw his way to a first-round 73.

Those four likely strolled out of Erin Hills Thursday wondering how Fowler strung together a ho-hum course-record round of 65 to sit with a two-stroke lead atop a surprisingly red-laden leaderboard.

More players finished under par in the first round here (44) than at any other U.S. Open ever. The previous record was 39.

“You don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free,” said Fowler, considered by many to be the best player on the planet right now never to have won a major. “Just did a good job, knew I needed to drive it well, and from there just able to manage hitting and continuing to swing well.

“Simple day when you look back on it.”

Easy for Fowler to say. He took advantage of a soft course that got doused in rain Wednesday and was playing under lighter winds than usual.

Playing with a Green Bay Packers-inspired green-and-gold bag, Fowler got the crowd on his side early and never made a single bogey all day long. The 65 was two strokes off the championship record for lowest first round, set by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf, who each shot 63 at Baltusrol in 1980. But par was 70 there, so Fowler’s 7-under mark tied the lowest first-round score in relation to par.

“I thought 7-under was just a phenomenal score,” said Jordan Spieth, the U.S. Open champ two years ago who shot 73. “I thought that there would definitely be a couple, few 5-unders this morning, based on the first four or five holes.”

Indeed, Fowler wasn’t alone.

Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood and Brooks Koepka all put up rounds of 67 in the morning, as well. And combined, they’ve got three career PGA victories between them.

Then Paul Casey and Xander Schauffele got within a stroke of the lead with 66s in the afternoon.

Yet McIlroy was over par. Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson and Jon Rahm were, too. In fact, Fowler was one of only two golfers in the top 10 in this week’s world rankings to play under par. Masters champion Sergio Garcia shot 70.

And then there was Stricker.

The 50-year-old looked like he was cruising into contention after two holes, birdying the par-5 first and par-4 second to the delight of the throngs of onlookers.

But he quickly followed up with back-to-back bogeys on 3 and 4. One, however, was a great save from the now-infamous Erin Hills fescue that easily could have ballooned his score.

The fans continued to shower Steve and his wife, Nicki, who is caddying for him, with cheers reserved most of the rest of the day for the top-ranked players in the field.

They loved every up-and-down for par, and Stricker needed a bunch of them.

After walking a mile—OK, maybe not quite that far, but probably not that far off—in Fowler’s stress-free spikes for the first seven strokes of his first round, it felt like Stricker labored over every one of his final 66.

Which is probably the way it should be. And perhaps the way the rest of the weekend will play out, if Mother Nature and the USGA’s course setups align.

After all, at the end of the day we’re still talking about the U.S. Open. And the next few days could afford to be a little more stressful.

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