Fowler and the USGA off to a good start at US Open

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Rickie Fowler hits out of the bunker on the sixth hole during the first round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. Fowler finished the round at 5-under par, 66.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Rickie Fowler had an ideal start Thursday in the U.S. Open, and so did the USGA.

Pebble Beach was as gentle as could be in the opening round, and Fowler was among those who took advantage with six birdies for a 5-under 66, giving him a share of the early lead with Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen.

The notorious wind off the Pacific coast was little more than a breeze. The course was lush green and relatively soft. The USGA wanted to start conservatively and make it progressively more difficult, a forecast of dry weather gives officials a lot more control.

This was the day to take advantage.

Schauffele, who keeps showing up in golf’s biggest events, holed a 12-foot eagle putt on the par-5 18th to join Fowler at 66. Oosthuizen holed out for eagle from 95 yards at No. 11, his second hole of the day.

“It’s a very soft start to a U.S. Open, which is a good thing,” Rory McIlroy said after a 68, his first sub-70 round at the U.S. Open since he won at Congressional in 2011. “They can do whatever they want with from here. It’s not as if you’re starting with a course that’s in the condition like a Sunday, and then you get three days and it sort of starts to get away from you.”

Two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods played in the afternoon. Koepka reached 4 under through seven holes until a bogey on No. 8, while Woods had three birdies to atone for a double bogey on par-3 fifth. He was 1 under through seven.

Scott Piercy made bogey on the 18th for a 67. He was the first player to get everyone’s attention when he made three birdies and an eagle through the opening six holes — the scoring holes at Pebble — and was 5 under.

Graeme McDowell saw the score when he walked off the 10th green at the start of his round and quipped to his caddie, “All the USGA radios are going off and they’re saying, ‘Turn off the water — NOW!'”

McDowell won the last U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010 when it was so difficult he made only one birdie in the final round and no one broke par for the week. Even as he saw low scores on the board — he had a bogey-free 69, one of 16 rounds in the 60s among the early starters — McDowell feared what was to come. What really got his attention was Phil Mickelson being some 30 feet above the hole at No. 1, which should ordinarily have been a lightning fast putt. Mickelson left it short.

“I don’t think level par wins this week,” he said. “Careful what you wish for, because I think we’re going to see it come the weekend.”

Mickelson, in his fifth attempt at the career Grand Slam, opened with a 72 that certainly didn’t hurt him, but only two birdies held him back. Two of his bogeys came from missing the fairway with an iron off the tee. The other was a careless three-putt — he missed from 22 inches.

Dustin Johnson was only one shot better, and he could have been a lot worse except for a magnificent short game, no shot better than his flop shop from well behind the eighth green to 2 feet. He nearly drove the green on No. 4, a dangerous shot because the coast line hugs the right side. Why driver?

“Because I’d bogeyed the last two holes,” Johnson said with a wry smile. “I needed a birdie.”

That wasn’t impatience that often dooms chances at a U.S. Open. That was recognition that scores were to be had, and this might be the best day.

Fowler picked up three birdies in seven holes, dropped a shot at the turn and added three birdies on the back. It’s the second time in three years at the U.S. Open he has started well — he had a 65 in the first round at Erin Hills — but the focus is on how he finishes.

Even though he’s 30, with seven victories on the PGA Tour and European Tour combined, Fowler is on that list of best without a major, perhaps because he’s had so many top finishes. So the start was important.

“It was very stress free,” Fowler said. “You never feel in cruise control at a major, especially a U.S. Open, but the execution was very good today. … It was the worst I could have shot, so that’s a good thing. I’m happy with the start. You can’t go out and win it up the first day, but you can obviously take yourself out of it and you’re having to fight back.”

Schauffele also appears poised to break through in his third full year on tour. He first gained attention with his tie for fifth in his U.S. Open debut two years ago, and he tied for sixth last year at Shinnecock Hills. He also has runner-up finishes in the British Open and the Masters.

His big break came at the end when he caught his drive off the toe and it hit off a rock framing the left side, bounding down the fairway. From there, he only had 8-iron to set up his eagle.

“Very fortunate, and happy we capitalized on a really lucky break,” he said.

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