The U.S. Open, the first one here and the first one in this metropolis since 1948, had begun with a dip into the berserk, with Fowler’s 62 the lowest score in the 123 years they’ve been addling golfers with rough and other barbarity, and tied for both the lowest score to par and the lowest score in any major. Then it went ahead and went haywire, because about 25 minutes later, while Scottie Scheffler talked about Fowler’s feat in the interview area, Xander Schauffele stood on TV sizing up a four-foot par putt that might get him to 62 as well.
It did, and then Schauffele, the San Diegan, blamed the most famous orb around here.
He blamed the sun, for not showing.
“I’d say the sun didn’t come out and it was missing this morning, so I’d say the greens held a little bit more moisture than anticipated, for myself at least,” he said in the dialect of an eccentric sport. “I think it made the greens sort of that more hole-able speed almost, and then coming into greens you’re able to pull some wedges back. And then the fairways are a little bit softer, too, because of that sort of overcast — and without the sun it’s not drying out much. I think fairways are easier to hit and greens are a little bit softer. I’m anticipating the sun to come out just as much as every West Coast person out here.”
Regardless of the sun’s laziness and culpability, its absence coincided with Fowler’s presence, and Fowler’s presence made another marker in his recovery from the perils of a sport adept at meanness. “It’s definitely been long and tough,” Fowler said of his elongated dip in form from last decade, “a lot longer being in that situation than you’d ever want to. But it makes it so worth it having gone through that and being back where we are now.”
He once was a star who couldn’t miss winning a major, then a star who had barely missed winning majors, then a star who started missing majors. He played 41 in a row from the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach to the 2020 Masters in the Augusta National autumn. He made the top five in all four held in 2014 and finished runner-up thrice in the 2010s. He has gone into one of those funks in which the game specializes and has played only four of the past 10, and he left without hitting a shot from the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club near Boston.
He’d been the unneeded first alternate, making it “nice to be actually out on course” this time.
It’s nicer to actually be out on course and make some midrange putts, which is how one gets to 10 birdies that drown two bogeys. He made it from seven feet on No. 10, 18 feet on No. 12, 11 feet on No. 14, 13 feet on No. 16, almost 16 feet on No. 18, five feet on No. 1, two feet on No. 2, four feet on No. 3, eight feet on No. 6 and those 13 feet on No. 8.
He did all this while he “never really thought about a score or necessarily what I was trying to do out there.” He did this, of course, after feeling no particular form or anything, because that’s how golf likes to work. “The first few days this week I wasn’t feeling very comfortable swinging,” he said, and then, “during warmup I actually didn’t have that great of a warmup. It was fine, but I knew that the stuff that I worked on yesterday, both swing and putting, putting was great, range was so-so, which a lot of times you don’t want to go stripe it on the range. That’s just a bad sign.”
Range was so-so can lead to game was gorgeous.
“It was fun to watch,” said playing partner Justin Rose, the 2013 champion who shot 76. “That was the highlight of my day, anyway.”
Those geeks who have been studious about it knew already that Fowler has been on an incline for a good while since he reached that career downtown where he started going untelevised. After one top-10 finish and nine cuts in 2020-21 and those same uncharacteristic numbers in 2021-22, he has launched six top-10s, 12 top-25s and one runner-up finish in 2022-23. At two recent stops of reverence, he finished tied for sixth in Fort Worth and tied for ninth outside Columbus, Ohio. His ranking has beamed from No. 173 late last summer to No. 45 today. His reunion with swing coach and life coach Butch Harmon has worked.
At the Memorial near Columbus two weeks ago, he said: “Short game’s better than where it was. Putting’s better than where it was. Obviously everything is better than where it was.” After his 62 matched that of Branden Grace at the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale, Fowler said, “I would say we’re starting to get maybe as close as we’ve ever been to where I was through that kind of ’14, ’15 area.”
After Schauffele’s 62 matched Fowler’s on this opening day, the proper etiquette might have called for a pillorying of the course, which spent so much of its 126 years as secretive. Yet the fact was, Fowler and Schauffele, guys seeking first majors after 12 and 10 top-10 finishes spent trying, had barreled way out ahead of the others, such that Fowler saw it as “kind of cool” to see Schauffele draft off his momentum until “we were taking off a bit.”
“Was just chasing Rickie up the leader board,” Schauffele said. “Glad he was just in front of me.” He also said, “He’s truly probably one of the nicest guys out here. I mean that when I say it. And I couldn’t be happier for him to see him in good form.” He called him “just a pleasure to be around.” Those who seem to feel likewise congratulated Fowler as he headed to the scorecard-signing district of the course.
Maybe they’ll end up having a sort of Duel in the Clouds here, or maybe the sun will return by habit. “The colors are different,” Schauffele said. “It feels like we’re in a park right now and we’re used to being sort of on the East Coast with bluegrass and lined fairways and different types of grass which are much darker. The feel, the stands, everything, the competition, definitely feels like a major and a U.S. Open. You just wait until this place firms up. It’s going to be nasty.”
He said that soon after Scheffler, the No. 1 player, who shot a 67, made this observation: “I think when people watch on TV they imagine it’s easy because you see the guys just playing good all the time, but it’s not that easy of a sport.” In that sense, Fowler had reappeared on TV in full, and only he knew the hell it took to get back there.