LOS ANGELES — Rickie Fowler went from the 10th green to the 11th tee on Friday afternoon, the memory of a mis-putt fresh in his mind.
On either side of the dirt road, fans crowded three behind the yellow ropes, turned up the volume and voiced their support.
“Come on, Ricky! yelled a middle-aged man dressed in orange. Half a dozen other people shouted similar encouragement. It wasn’t until Fowler left that someone noticed his playing partner Justin Rose and blurted out, “You too, Rosey,” causing the Englishman to turn his head and smile.
The sparse crowds at the Los Angeles Country Club have often seemed only half interested in golf this week, but there’s one player whose presence has fans putting down their cell phones or interrupting their conversations. People evil I want to see Fowler regain the form and arrogance he showed before his game let him down for three frustrating years.
If the first two rounds of the US Open are any indication, Fowler’s legion of supporters might get his wish. The same player who went nine months last year without a top-20 finish is alone atop a star-studded US Open ranking heading into the weekend, one stroke ahead of Wyndham Clark and two ahead of Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauele.
After Fowler and Schauffele on Thursday became the first players to shoot 8-under par 62 in the US Open’s 128-year history, the north course at the Los Angeles Country Club provided a bigger challenge the next day. Fowler battled stronger winds, firmer greens and more difficult pin locations on Friday as he looked to maintain or extend his lead.
In the end, Fowler shot a 2-under 68, but did it in the most anti-US Open way possible.
He holed eight, bogeyed six and parried just four, often stringing together errant drives or three-putts with displays of resolve and skill.
“I know there are a lot of people who say that [the course] is too easy, but they’re not the ones playing,” Fowler said. “It’s not easy there.
“Watching on TV and all that probably doesn’t do him justice. The fairways look very wide because yes, the mowed areas are wide, but where you have to hit it is very small. The golf course is therefore large and open but plays very tight.
As Fowler’s emotions soared on Friday, the crowds went through the ups and downs with him. They broke when he landed three straight birdies to start the round. They moaned when he misjudged three uphill putts and left them all short. And they chanted his name as he came down the still-hanging 18th fairway.
“The fans have been great here,” Fowler said. “I feel like, especially yesterday as the round went on, that I felt more and more energy as I kept going more and more under par.”
It’s easy to see why Fowler has so many supportive fans. His recent struggles make him very relatable.
Fowler was once golf’s next big thing, a swaggering prospect who changed the perception of how golfers looked with his flat-brimmed hats and neon orange outfits. A deluge of sponsors jumped on board as he rose to No. 4 in the world and finished in the top five in five major tournaments from 2014 to 2018.
At that time, it seemed like a matter of time before Fowler shed the label of one of golf’s best players never to win a major tournament. Then, out of nowhere, he nosedived. Last season he fell to the top 175 in the world rankings and failed to qualify for three of the four major tournaments.
For Fowler, the return to relevance began with tough decisions. He reluctantly parted ways with a longtime friend who had been his caddy since 2009 and returned to famed swing coach Butch Harmon after working with John Tillery.
These changes seem to have helped. In the fall, Fowler finished in the top six in two of his first three events of the new season. This year he has only missed a cut once and consistently placed in the top 20.
Speaking to reporters Friday night, Fowler said he felt a mixture of “relief” and “gratitude” to be in contention for a major championship once again. He says he feels “in a better position with my game now” than he was in his prime.
“Over the last few years, there’s probably a lot of people who would have just hung up,” Fowler said. “I wouldn’t say I necessarily liked it, but [it helped] just because of everything I’ve learned about myself, my swing, my game. I wouldn’t be in this position if I hadn’t been through the last few years.