Erin, Wis. – Minnesotans should fondly remember Rickie Fowler. He won two of his three matches for the U.S. team that won the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National, where he also he turned a public appearance into an episode of "The Bachelor."
The Americans had gathered for the championship ceremony by Hazeltine's driving range. Each golfer turned to his significant other for a kiss. Photographers caught Fowler smiling and shrugging amid the embraces. As the only unattached guy in the group, he became the third — or 13th — wheel.
That moment explained Fowler's popularity on tour. He's an excellent player, a popular opponent and teammate and the rare elite golfer who has no trouble coming across as an average guy.
Fowler has since found someone to kiss during championship ceremonies, and he might get to practice that Sunday. Thursday, he shot a 7-under 65 in the first round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, taking a two-shot lead and then the hand of Allison Stokke.
Fowler had just tapped in for par on his last hole of the day. He walked toward the clubhouse hand in hand with Stokke, a former high school champion pole vaulter.
Last month, Fowler posted a picture of the two together on Instagram, with the hashtag #RickFoundaChick. His search for a major title has proved as mysterious as romance.
Fowler finished in the top five in all four majors in 2014 but hasn't made the top 10 in one since. While often referred to as a newer member of the best-player-never-to-win-a-major club, a medium-length hitter such as Fowler might be out of his element at Erin Hills, ranking as the longest course in U.S. Open history.
Fowler is tied for 33rd on the PGA Tour in driving distance. Thursday, he ranked 103rd in that category despite an average drive of 299.5 yards.
He proved Thursday that hitting it straight and making putts works on any course. His 65 was two strokes off the U.S. Open first-round record. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf shot 63 at Baltusrol in 1980. Fowler's 7-under tied the lowest first-round score in relation to par. Only Johnny Miller's 8-under 63 in 1973 to win at Oakmont was a lower single-round score at a U.S. Open.
Fowler hit 12 of 14 fairways, birdied three of his first five holes and coasted, which is not a word usually associated with U.S. Open courses.
"It was nice," Fowler said. "You don't get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free."
Fowler made seven birdies and zero bogeys. He birdied all four par-5s while bucking a personal trend of playing himself out of contention on major Thursdays.
"I've been able to tighten things up," he said. "I used to not be a very good bunker player, and now I feel like I have a lot of confidence, and stats show I'm one of the best."
What's difficult about golf is being one of the best in every major can get you nowhere. Fowler has been hearing he's one of the best not to win a major for the past three years. "I take it as a compliment," he said. "There are a lot of really good players out here that haven't won a major. So it would be nice to get rid of that at some point.
"I'm not saying that this is the week or isn't the week. But I like the way this golf course suits me, and we're off to a good start. There's definitely a lot of golf to be played."
As a Ryder Cup player, Fowler always will have Minnesota, unless Minnesotans find out what his caddie is carrying this week.
Fowler is playing to the locals with a green-and-gold golf bag. "It definitely hasn't hurt," Fowler said. "Any time you can get local fans on your side, it helps."
If he can win his first major in Wisconsin, Fowler might just become the first player ever to drink cheese out of the U.S. Open trophy.
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org