LOS ANGELES — Rickie Fowler strode from the 10th green to the 11th tee box on Friday afternoon, the memory of a botched par putt fresh in his mind.
On either side of the dirt pathway, the fans packed three deep behind the yellow ropes lifted the volume and voiced their support.
“C’mon, Rickie!” howled a middle-aged man clad in orange. A half dozen other people shouted similar encouragement. Only after Fowler had moved on did someone notice his playing partner Justin Rose and blurt out “You too, Rosey,” causing the Englishman to turn his head and crack a smile.
The sparse crowds at Los Angeles Country Club have often only seemed half-interested in golf this week, but there’s one player whose presence gets fans to put down their cell phones or halt their conversations. People badly want to see Fowler recapture the form and swagger he showed before his game deserted him for three frustrating years.
If the first two rounds of the U.S. Open are any indication, Fowler’s legion of supporters may get their wish. The same player who last year went nine months without a top 20 finish is alone atop a star-studded U.S. Open leaderboard heading into the weekend, one shot ahead of Wyndham Clark and two clear of Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele.
After Fowler and Schauffele on Thursday became the first players to shoot 8-under-par 62s in the U.S. Open’s 128-year history, Los Angeles Country Club’s north course provided a more major-worthy challenge the following day. Fowler battled stronger winds, firmer greens and tougher pin locations on Friday as he sought to maintain or build on his lead.
In the end, Fowler shot a 2-under 68 but did so in the most un-U.S. Open-like fashion possible.
He birdied eight holes, bogeyed six and parred just four, often following up errant drives or three-putts with displays of resolve and skill.
“I know there are a lot of people saying that [the course] is too easy, but they’re not the ones out there playing,” Fowler said. “It’s not easy out there.
“Watching on TV and stuff, it probably doesn’t do it justice. The fairways look very wide because yes, the mowed areas are wide, but where you have to hit it is very small. So the golf course is big and open but plays very tight.”
As Fowler’s emotions yoyoed on Friday, the crowds went through the ups and downs with him. They erupted when he reeled off three straight birdies to start the round. They groaned when he misjudged three uphill putts and left them all short. And they chanted his name when he walked down the 18th fairway still clinging to the lead.
“The fans have been great here,” Fowler said. “I feel like, especially yesterday as the round went on, I felt more and more energy as I continued to go more and more under par.”
It’s easy to see why Fowler has so many fans rooting for him. His recent struggles make him very relatable.
Fowler was once golf’s next big thing, a ballyhooed prospect who changed the perception of how golfers could look with his trademark flat-brim hats and neon-orange outfits. A deluge of sponsors hopped aboard as he rose as high as No. 4 in the world and cracked the top five in five majors from 2014-2018.
In those days it seemed like a matter of time before Fowler shed the label of one of golf’s best players never to win a major. Then, out of nowhere, he nosedived. Last season, he fell out of the top 175 in the world rankings and failed to qualify for three out of four majors.
For Fowler, the path back to relevance began with some hard decisions. He reluctantly parted with a longtime friend who had been his caddie since 2009 and he returned to famed swing coach Butch Harmon after previously working with John Tillery.
Those changes seem to have helped. In the fall, Fowler finished top six in two of his first three events of the new season. This year, he has missed a cut only once and has consistently piled up top 20 finishes.
When he addressed reporters on Friday night, Fowler said he feels a mixture of “relief” and “gratitude” being in contention for a major championship again. He says he feels like he’s “in a better position with my game now” than he was in his heyday.
“Going through the last few years, there’s probably plenty of people that might have just hung it up,” Fowler said. “I wouldn’t say I necessarily enjoyed it, but [it helped] just because of how much I learned about myself, my swing, my game. I wouldn’t be in this position had I not gone through the last few years.”