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From first alternate to first U.S. Open 62, Rickie Fowler comes full circle at LACC

LOS ANGELES – Rickie Fowler spent a long, wasted Thursday on the range last year at The Country Club hoping, hitting and, ultimately, going home.

“I got some good work in,” Fowler laughed Thursday at Los Angeles Country Club when asked about last year’s U.S. Open.

Full-field scores from U.S. Open

Fowler began the first round at Brookline as the first alternate and never sniffed the golf course, perhaps the cruelest of destinies for any professional to be so close to something and yet completely detached.

There was no measure of revenge for Fowler on Day 1 on the North Course. He’s ridden the extremes of professional golf for far too long to ever tempt fate in such a way, but there was a measure of satisfaction that went beyond the historical significance of his championship-record 62.

If he was so inclined, Fowler could have reflected on the journey from forlorn first alternate to first-round co-leader as a metaphor for his last few years. At Brookline he ranked outside the top 140 in the world ranking and had failed to post a top 20 in his previous 12 starts.

As he waited for a tee time that never came at The Country Club, he still had the easy smile and approachability that’s made him a fan favorite since he arrived on Tour with his signature bright orange flat-brim hat, but he was searching and there were no easy answers. His work with swing coach John Tillery wasn’t paying off and he was three years removed from his last victory on the PGA Tour.

Rock bottom came last fall when Fowler split with Tillery and his long-time caddie Joe Skovron. He went back to Butch Harmon, the coach he’d had the most success with, and the results followed.

He finished 2022 strong with a runner-up showing at the Zozo Championship, his best finish since his victory at the ’19 WM Phoenix Open, and he’s been the most consistent player on Tour this year not named Jon Rahm or Scottie Scheffler. In 13 starts in ’23 he’s missed one cut and has 10 top-20 finishes, including his tie for ninth two weeks ago at the Memorial, and has climbed back into the top 50 in the world ranking (No. 45).

It would have been impossible to predict Fowler’s historic round at Los Angeles Country Club, but for anyone who has been paying attention his 10-birdie effort was hardly a surprise.

The road back never led to the North Course, but Fowler was comfortable putting his opening round in perspective given the depth of his journey.

“It’s definitely been long and tough. A lot longer being in that situation than you’d ever want to. But it makes it so worth it having gone through that and being back where we are now,” Fowler said. “I would say we’re starting to get maybe as close as we’ve ever been to where I was through kind of that ’14, ’15 area.”

It’s a testament to how well Fowler is playing that his record 62 was relatively stress-free, with far more highlights than good breaks. There was the 5-iron from 214 yards to a front hole location at the 16th hole, which is playing the second toughest with a 4.35 scoring average. There was an unlikely birdie at the par-5 eighth hole from the barranca that was best played “quickly.”

“Really just tried to hit it fairly quickly, just react to it, don’t really think about it a whole lot. It was just a pitching wedge that I was trying to catch clean and kind of caught up against the wind,” he explained. And there was a healthy mix of mid-range putts, including seven longer than 8 feet, that left him first from the early wave in strokes gained: putting.

Fowler held the 18-hole championship scoring record alone for all of 25 minutes before Xander Schauffele joined him with a 62 of his own, but that does nothing to take away from the accomplishment. For the majority of the field, the North Course was the scruffy brute they expected.

“I don’t think you’ll be seeing too much of that over the weekend. Heck of a round, U.S. Open golf course,” Scheffler acknowledged. “I didn’t see 8 under out there today, especially with the way I started.”

After the difficult times, Fowler can now attest to the mental toughness that only comes with adversity and an appreciation that’s difficult to muster when things are going well, but the 12-month transformation from first alternate to first-to-shoot-a-62-in-a-U.S.-Open can be traced directly to his return to Harmon and the legendary swing coach’s unique touch.

“Butch is great, just his voice and having him in your corner. He’s been around and seen a lot and been around so many great players. He’s coached so many guys to reach their potential,” Fowler said. “I feel like he’s a very good golf and life coach. Kind of separate from being kind of a swing coach. He can be technical and mechanical if needed, but he understands the playing and the mental side and if you may be a little off finding one thing or just telling you just something to give you a little confidence.”

After so many years on the wrong side of fortune, Fowler had no interest in taking a victory lap with three rounds remaining on a uniquely challenging golf course and the USGA likely poised to put the teeth back into the game’s “toughest test.” But the 34-year-old was also willing to savor the moment.

Very rarely do star-crossed players find their way back. Even more rarely do first alternates go on to rewrite the game’s most venerable history books.