ERIN, Wis.—After a historically good round and in a moment of happy candor, Rickie Fowler admitted that you don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are so “stress-free.” Many of his peers felt just as relaxed. In a rare moment in a long history, it was par’s turn to squirm.
Fowler shot 7-under par 65 and led a birdie spree that defied the tradition of the Open and the U.S. Golf Association making golfers uncomfortable. It was a field day for the field in the first-ever major championship round at Erin Hills. Forty-four golfers broke par on a course that was softened by rain, generally unaffected by wind and possibly not so tough to begin with.
“It was a simple day when you look back on it, and how we kind of pieced our way around the golf course,” Fowler said, after having tied Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf for the lowest first-round in relation to par in U.S. Open history. They both shot 63 on Baltusrol’s par 70 layout in 1980. The only others to have ever scored lower in an Open first round were Lee Mackey Jr. (64 at Merion in 1950) and Mike Weir (64 in 2009 at Bethpage Black).
“Yeah, it’s always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf. But I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday,” Fowler, considered by some to be the best player never to have won a major, said after a bogey-free round.
But his day was not some outlier. Two golfers, playing in the afternoon, when the breeze was a touch stronger, finished at 6 under: Paul Casey of England and Xander Schauffele, a PGA Tour rookie and first-time Open participant whose mother is from Taipei and his father is half French and half German. The latter just missed a putt on his final hole, the par-3 ninth, to tie Fowler.
“It’s like a bonus round. I’m out here, I’ve got nothing to lose,” Schauffele said, referring to his having to qualify to get in. He had so few people following him that once, when he hit an approach shot within 7 feet of the hole, there was no applause. That was fine by him. “I’ll just try and be me,” he said.
Something big was possible from just about anyone at any time. Adam Hadwin tied an Open record (held by Long Islander George Burns from 1982 and Andy Dillard in 1992) with six consecutive birdies. Hadwin, a PGA Tour player born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, buzzed the hole with a 96-foot putt for a seventh birdie.
In short, what a day. It was a rare occasion when someone opens an Open with an eagle, as Casey did. “I really enjoyed it, loved the whole experience today,” he said.
To be fair, Erin Hills did punish poor shots. There was the helpless sight of Jason Day pitching toward the flagstick on No. 4, only to see the ball roll back to his feet twice in a row. He finished at 7 over 79. Rory McIlroy, playing in the same group, was nearly as bad, shooting 6-over par. Defending champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, citing putting woes, shot 3 over.
But the day was carried by those who followed Fowler’s lead. He said he considers it a compliment when people think he is the best to never have won a major (after Sergio Garcia’s Masters victory).
“There are a lot of really good players out here who haven’t won a major,” Fowler said. “It would be nice to get rid of that at some point. I’m not saying this is the week or this isn’t the week. But I like the way this golf course suits me and we’re off to a good start.”
It was a horrible start for anyone entrusted with protecting par, which made pros wary late yesterday. As Casey said of the red-letter day: “It’s not going to last.”