Tiger Woods reflects on his win at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Woods destroyed the competition winning by a record-setting 15 shots.
Golfweek, USA TODAY NETWORK
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Rickie Fowler swears he doesn’t think about it.
He insists it doesn’t bother him and politely says so when the subject is broached, which was as recently as Tuesday.
But deep down, the magnetic star wants to rid himself of the label of being one of the best players never to have won a major, a double-edged tag that has been attached to his logoed wardrobe for nearly five years.
As he has said often, all he can do is put himself in position to end such talk. And he did so again Thursday in the first round of the 119th U.S. Open as he signed for a 5-under-par 66 to share space at the top of the leaderboard with Xander Schauffele, Louis Oosthuizen and Aaron Wise at Pebble Beach. Justin Rose went to the top of the board later Thursday with a 65.
“Well, the expectations and the pressure that I put on myself is a lot more than what’s coming from the outside,” Fowler said. “I’d love to get a major. It would be awesome if it was this week. We’re off to a good start. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I said earlier in the week that whether I win a major or I don’t in my career, it’s not something that’s going to define me.”
Fowler and the rest of the morning wave were greeted by a calm sea, trees that were nearly still and a course that was yielding. Soon red numbers took to the scoreboards as the morning wave took to the course.
After the top trio of leaders, Scott Piercy shot 67 after getting to 5 under through his first six holes.
Piercy got off to a hot start at Pebble Beach, where the greens were soft and conditions ripe for scoring early. Piercy made birdies on holes 2, 4 and 5 before his eagle on the par-5 sixth.
A group of four at 68 included four-time major champion Rory McIlroy. Eight players were at 69, including Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau and Graeme McDowell, who won the U.S. Open in 2010, the last time it was at Pebble Beach.
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“It’s probably one of the better rounds I’ve played in a major, but it felt like the worst I could have shot,” said Fowler, alluding to the number of greens he hit in regulation (15), how many fairways he hit (13) and how many good putts he stroked (many). “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 put yourself in a good position or take yourself out of it.”
Fowler, who has won five PGA Tour titles, has 10 top-10s in majors. Four of those came in 2014, including the PGA Championship where he led by one with six holes to play before tying for third.
In 2017, his 65 gave him the first-round lead in the U.S. Open en route to a tie for fifth. In the 2018 Masters, he made a back-nine Sunday rush but fell one shy of champion Patrick Reed.
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As each major has passed – this is his 39th – Fowler said he has reached the coveted comfort level to deal with the magnitude of the majors. He wants to feel like he does at a regular PGA Tour event. He prepares a tad differently for the four biggest events but come the first tee on the first day, he’s just thinking of execution.
“You don’t have to do anything special in majors. It’s just being disciplined and executing the shot that’s at hand,” Fowler said. “I feel great. Very comfortable at Pebble. I feel I’m in a really good spot on the golf course and away from the golf course.”
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McIlroy, last week’s winner of the RBC Canadian Open, would say the same. He exorcised his demonic recent past with the U.S. Open. In his last three starts in the national championship, McIlroy opened with rounds of 77, 78 and 80 en route to missing the cut.
His 68 bodes well – the last three times he’s opened a major with a 68 or lower, he won. Those victories came at the 2012 PGA, 2014 British Open and 2014 PGA.
“Getting back to winning these big events, it is important to get off to a good start,” McIlroy said. “You’re right in the mix from the start. I did everything you need to do in a U.S. Open. I stayed patient. I bogeyed the first hole and then played the last 17 4-under without a bogey. It was a good day’s work.”
As it was for Fowler.