Rickie Fowler reserves his flash for the first round of the US Open

No golf fans followed Rickie Fowler Thursday dressed the same as he was. It used to be a thing in 2010, when Fowler, then 22, rode his laid-back dirt-biking roots and a boy band vibe complete with a head-to-toe orange outfit and a flat-brimmed hat to massive popularity.

Fowler, now 34 and a husband and father, was still dapper in Thursday’s first round of the US Open at 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 audience was also somewhat understated. Nine holes into his round, which had started on the 10th hole, a packed grandstand applauded politely as Fowler made a birdie putt to tie for the tournament lead at three under par. One fan shouted: “Keep it up Rickie.” But the reaction was hardly the same as the frenzied quasi-delirium that the long-haired younger Fowler once evoked.

Finally, as he marched toward his final nine holes, the volume began to turn up. With five birdies and four pars in the final nine holes, Fowler shot an eight-under 62. It was the lowest round in US Open history. Not long after, Xander Schauffele would match that.

That didn’t change the quiet smile on Fowler’s face as he hugged a group of friends and colleagues afterward. They had seen his many recent matches on the golf course – “dark days”, he once called them – and admired how his face 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 see Rickie today. It 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 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 only played in one, the PGA Championship, and finished in a tie for 23rd.

People wondered if he would defect to the LIV Golf course just to get one last big paycheck while his name still mattered. But Fowler stuck with his PGA Tour buddies Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, with whom he once went on a beach vacation, and persevered. He could regularly be seen alone, grinding on the course or practicing putting himself in the late afternoon or evening during tournaments.

Last month, after several encouraging results, Fowler jumped back into the top 50 in the rankings, qualifying him for last month’s PGA Championship. Fowler spoke as if he had turned a corner.

“To come back to this stage, I mean, it’s never fun,” he said. “But in many ways I have actually enjoyed it. I learned things about myself. Not that I lost faith, but I almost came to embrace the grind.”

To that end, Fowler would have been forgiven for strolling the LA Country Club grounds Thursday with a huge grin that never left his face. But interestingly, Fowler was mostly stoic, occasionally cracking a thin smile. 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 from a nearby grandstand.

Interviewed afterward, Fowler maintained his laid-back attitude. He insisted that he was actually uncomfortable with the LA Country Club layout for most of his practice rounds.

“Then, yesterday, a few things finally clicked and it gave me confidence,” he said, admitting that birdying three of his first five holes (with a bogey thrown in) hadn’t hurt.

After starting his round just after 8 a.m. Pacific time, Fowler reached the halfway mark of his round before 10.30, when a late-arriving fandom had not yet filled the stands or along 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 driveable par-4 sixth hole, he hit a long iron to 51 yards, 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 just off the fairway, but he saved himself with a brave 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 confidence.

A record-low US Open score was on the table with a par on the final hole, which Fowler also made look easy, despite having to sink an abysmal final putt.

“This week is off to a good start,” he said moments later—nonchalantly, as if that was all his performance meant to him.

Later he would reveal otherwise. Asked to characterize his journey from 173rd in the world to a record round at the national championship, Fowler said: “It’s definitely been long and hard. Much longer to be in that situation than you’d ever want. But it makes it so worth it to have gone through it and be back where we are now.”

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