No golf fans followed Rickie Fowler on Thursday dressed the same as he was. That used to be a thing in 2010 when Fowler, then 22, rode his relaxed dirt-biking roots and a boy band vibe complete with a top-to-toe orange outfit and a flat-brim hat to enormous popularity.
Fowler, now 34 and a husband and father, was still dapper in Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open at the Los Angeles Country Club but hardly flashy in a soft blue-gray pullover with white trim that matched his white cap, pants and shoes.
The crowds were somewhat understated, too. Nine holes into his round, which had started on the 10th hole, a packed grandstand politely applauded when Fowler made a birdie putt to tie for the tournament lead at three under par. A fan called out, “Keep it going, Rickie.” But the reaction was hardly the same as the raucous quasi delirium that the longhaired younger Fowler once elicited.
Finally, as he marched toward his final nine holes, the volume began to ratchet up. With five birdies and four pars in the closing nine holes, Fowler shot an eight-under 62. It was the lowest round in the history of the U.S. Open. Not long after, Xander Schauffele would match it.
That did not alter the quiet smile on Fowler’s face as he hugged a group of friends and colleagues afterward. They had watched his many recent struggles on the golf course — “dark days,” he once called them — and admired how his countenance had never changed.
“He’s always been the same guy,” said Justin Rose, who had played with Fowler on Thursday and shot a disappointing 76. “It was fun to watch Rickie today. That was the highlight of my day. Good for him.”
Thursday’s result was something of a surprise for Fowler, but not a shock. He has been predicting some kind of revival for months. Once the fourth-ranked golfer in the world, Fowler had plummeted all the way to No. 173 last year. In 2014, he had finished in the top five at each of the four major tournaments. By 2022, he had played in only one, the P.G.A. Championship, and finished tied for 23rd.
People wondered if he would defect to the LIV Golf circuit just to get a final big paycheck while his name still meant something. But Fowler stayed with his PGA Tour pals Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, with whom he once took beach vacations, and persevered. He could regularly be seen alone, grinding on the range or practicing putting by himself late in the afternoon or evening during tournaments.
Last month, after several encouraging results, Fowler vaulted back into the top 50 of the rankings, which qualified him for last month’s P.G.A. Championship. Fowler talked as if he had turned a corner.
“Getting back to this stage, I mean, it’s never fun,” he said. “But in many ways, I’ve actually enjoyed it. I learned things about myself. Not that I lost faith, but I came to almost embrace the grind.”
To that end, Fowler would have been forgiven if he had sauntered around the L.A. Country Club grounds on Thursday with a giant grin that never left his face. But interestingly, Fowler was mostly stoic, flashing a thin smile occasionally. When he sank a three-foot putt for par on his final hole — the uphill, par-3 ninth hole — he barely raised his right hand to acknowledge the cheers roaring from a nearby grandstand.
Interviewed afterward, Fowler maintained his laid-back mien. He insisted he was actually uncomfortable with the L.A. Country Club layout for most of his practice rounds.
“Then, yesterday, finally a couple things clicked and that gave me confidence,” he said, admitting that it had not hurt to have birdied three of his first five holes (with one bogey mixed in).
Having started his round just after 8 a.m. Pacific time, Fowler reached the halfway point of his round before 10:30 a.m. when a late arriving fandom had yet to fill the grandstands or line the fairways. But as Fowler birdied the first, second and third holes (his 10th, 11th and 12th holes played), larger crowds found Fowler on the golf course. They were treated to a show.
At the drivable par-4 sixth hole, he hit a long iron to 51 yards and then spun a wedge shot to within eight feet and sank that putt for birdie. On the par-5 eighth hole, his drive found the devilish barranca right of the fairway, but he rescued himself with a gutsy chip back into the fairway. “I tried not to overthink it and take too long with that recovery,” he said. His pitch to the green left a 13-foot left-to-right birdie putt that Fowler sank with aplomb.
A record low U.S. Open score was on the table with a closing-hole par, which Fowler also made look easy, despite having to sink a dicey final putt.
“This week is off to a good start,” he said moments later — nonchalantly, as if that were all his performance meant to him.
Later, he would reveal otherwise. Asked to characterize his journey from 173rd in the world to a record-setting round in the national championship, Fowler said: “It’s definitely been long and tough. 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.”