ST. LOUIS — Rickie Fowler sure looked comfortable on Thursday at Bellerive Country Club, posting a tremendous a 5-under 65 that put him right in the thick of things at the 2018 PGA Championship.

Fowler sits one back of Gary Woodland’s 6-under lead after Round 1.

The 65 included just one bogey, and Fowler closed with two birdies in his final three holes (the front nine on the course as he started on the back). He hit 11-of-14 fairways and 16-of-18 greens in regulation over the course of the afternoon.

Fowler, in his words, “wore out” the fairways and greens, playing about the lowest-stress golf you can possibly play at a major championship. After going out in 1-under 34 on the back side of the course, Fowler shot a 31 on the front that included just one made putt over 10 feet. 

To highlight this point, I picked Fowler up on the par-5 8th without knowing how many shots it had taken him to reach the greenside bunker. After he got up and down, I presumed it was for par because of how both he and the crowd reacted to the canned 8-footer. As I found out a few seconds later when the group scorer got to the tee box on No. 9, it was actually for his sixth birdie of the day. As stress-free as it gets.

Fowler led the field in strokes gained from tee to green and putted close to the field average. That’s great news if you’re looking for him to break through for major win No. 1 this week.

“One of the things I did a good job of … is not trying to overpower it or not try and get that extra, just get the ball in the fairway and I’ve always been a good mid iron and long iron player,” Fowler said. “So you get me in the fairway and with the soft greens, I feel like we can pick apart the golf course as long as we continue to play smart and within ourselves. So now it’s all can you do is get off to a good start Thursday and we did that.”

Fowler, if nothing else, is stubborn about his game plan. It’s probably hurt him in the past when he’s had a chance to step on the gas and really go for a tournament, but at some point, it seems as if it’s actually going to be the reason he wins one.

“You can’t force the issue … it relates to some of our game plan and how we’re going about this week as far as just trying to play within ourselves and not do anything extra special,” Fowler said. “I don’t have to play special to win.”

He’s probably right about that. Fowler is No. 25 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained overall this year and normally top 10 or top 15 in that category. His problem is more that he needs to string together four consistent rounds. Last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he shot a 63 and 65, but he interspersed those with a 74 and 73. It’s not unlike what he’s done at majors this season.

The 65 actually ties his best round of the major year. He shot 65 on Saturday at the Masters and on Sunday at the U.S. Open as well. At the Masters, he started slow with a 70-72 first two rounds, and his 65 at Shinnecock came after an 84 in Round 3. Neither of those two tournaments ended up with Fowler hoisting a trophy, but he doesn’t seem very concerned about that.

“I always have hope,” the 29-year-old star said. “I know Phil [Mickelson] didn’t win [a major] until his 30s. I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s not something I necessarily worry about. Keep putting ourselves in position, get in contention, we have had plenty of runner-ups. Jack [Nicklaus] had a lot of runner-ups, we’ll just keep beating down that door.”

Whether it will open this week remains to be seen, but Fowler is off to a proper start. Going wire-to-wire (or close to it) at a major championship is a dicey proposition, but he probably has the motor to do so. Fowler doesn’t care if he leads on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, though. Only if there are no names above his come sunset on Sunday. 

The normally benign quote machine was much of the same after his round on Thursday at Bellerive. One shot at a time. One day at a time. We didn’t play ourselves out of it. We’ve heard it all before. Not just from him, but tons of other golfers, too. 

The one thing I kept coming back to, though, is what he said about Mickelson. Fowler always says the word “we” in his post-round pressers and interviews. I don’t know who started it, but most of the young guys on the PGA Tour do it. Jordan Spieth may have been the genesis, or maybe it was Fowler. Or somebody else. However, when he was asked about hope and the future, he eschewed that pronoun for a different one.

I always have hope.

It grabbed me in a way that most golf quotes — and most Fowler quotes — do not. It may have been offhand, just something to say, but his voice seemed to change a bit. His throat seemed to clench, his eyes flash. Maybe not. Who knows? I’m a reporter in a chair sitting 40 feet away. 

Whatever it was, it passed quickly. It will linger in my mind, though, until he wins that alluring first major and sheds whatever labels he’s been sidled with. Maybe that’s this week, maybe next year; whenever it is, I’ll think back on that moment and what I heard. 

Because not only can hope motivate a player, but at major championships when you’re laid bare by expectations and the utter immensity of various moments, it’s sometimes all you have left. 


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