Rickie Fowler plays a shot from the 14th tee during...

Rickie Fowler plays a shot from the 14th tee during the first round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on Thursday in Pebble Beach, Calif. Credit: Getty Images/Warren Little

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.—Every big tournament is like the end of a Stanley Cup playoff series for Rickie Fowler. You know how the losing hockey team lines up to congratulate the winner?  Fowler essentially is a one-person handshake line.

He stayed well after his round was over to salute his buddy Justin Thomas when the latter won the 2017 PGA Championship. Fowler has been there to shake hands with another close friend, Jordan Spieth. Fowler was one of the first to honor Tiger Woods, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka, too. He barely knows Keith Mitchell and still he hung around to pay tribute at the Honda Classic this March.

It would be quite interesting to see the reception Fowler would get if he ever won a major. It also would be quite cool.

An awful lot of people on both sides of the ropes who would be thrilled to see Fowler win one of the Grand Slam tournaments, such as the U.S. Open this week. He is in his own category: Most Popular Player Never to Have Won a Major.

At least he put himself in position to give it a shot, shooting 5-under-par 66 Thursday (tied for second with three others, one shot behind Justin Rose) in what he called a stress-free first round. “You can’t go out and win it on the first day,” he said, “but you can take yourself out of it.” 

If there is anyone who can speak with authority about not winning the big ones, it is Fowler. He is generally conceded the dubious title, “Best Player Never to Win a Major.” He has been plenty good enough to come close — notably in 2014, when he placed in the top five at all four major championships --- but never quite good enough to win.

People love him nonetheless, or maybe they love him more because of it. He always has been a favorite among youngsters because he has been the coolest guy on tour. Kids love his flashy clothing, his trendy hairstyles, his background as a motocross racer and his aggressive mode of golf.

On the other hand, you could argue that his fame has outraced his accomplishments, given only five wins in 10 years as a professional. Renowned teacher Butch Harmon has said that when he first began working with Fowler a few years ago, he asked his new client, “You’ve got to decide, are you going to be a Kardashian or are you going to be a golf pro?”

At 30, Fowler is not a neophyte any more. He insists that this is not kids stuff for him. He says that he burns to win, more than we can see. “Well, the expectations and pressure I put on myself are more than I put on myself are a lot more than what's coming from the outside,” he said after having taken an early share of the Open lead. “So, yeah, I mean, I'd love to get a major. It would be awesome if it was this week.”

Then he added, “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. There's a lot of other things that I'd love to be remembered by, work off the golf course and making a difference and changing people's lives.”

He has a foundation that helps needy kids. He and Jason Dufner agreed to go with mullet haircuts to raise attention for charities (“We didn’t do it to look good,”  Fowler said with a grin).

I will never forget seeing him do a youth clinic at Huntington Crescent Club and watching him give special attention to every youngster there. No cameras were present. He did it just because he knew each kid wanted a moment with Rickie Fowler.

That's all good, but he added on Thursday, "It would be nice to have a major on the resume."

For a lot of folks, that would be the coolest.

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