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Len Ziehm On Golf

Could this be Rickie Fowler’s time to nab that first major title?

ERIN, Wis. – Rickie Fowler is sure that he’ll win one of golf’s major titles some day. So is most everyone else, and this week could be his time.

In 2014 he finished in the top five at all four of them – the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship – and was runner-up in both the Opens. Fowler’s on target for another such run in this year’s U.S. Open after posting a 7-under-par 65 in Thursday’s opening round at Erin Hills.

Fowler couldn’t have been much better on this beautiful day. He knew it might be his day when he made his first birdie on his second hole and got a big break on his third, when his tee shot hit one of the very few trees on the course and bounced back into the first cut of rough instead of the knee-high fescue.

After that it was easy, as Fowler matched the tournament’s low round in relation to par set in the 1980 tournament at Baltusrol when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf were both 7-under. Baltusrol played to a par-70 that year, so their scores were 63. Erin Hills was set at its maximum length of 7,845 yards on Thursday – making it the longest to host any of golf’s four majors – so the par was higher for Fowler.

“It was nice. You don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress=free,’’ he said. `A simple day, when you look back on it – how we pieced our way around the golf course. But that’s a lot easier said than done.’’

Just ask defending champion Dustin Johnson, who shot 75 and admitted he was a little frustrated.

“I didn’t play that bad. I just didn’t putt very good,’’ summed up Johnson.

Neither did Jordan Spieth, the last player to make the Open his second major title. The last six Open champions have been first-time winners of majors. Spieth posted a 73.

“I hit the ball phenomenal, just didn’t make anything. That’s all it was,’’ said Spieth.

But the putts wouldn’t fall. So, Fowler’s top challengers after Round 1 aren’t quite among the sport’s elite. England’s Paul Casey and Californian Zander Schauffele, both late starters, carded 66s to get within one stroke of Fowler.

Leading is nice, but Fowler doesn’t want to think too far ahead.

“It’s just the first round,’’ he said. “It’s always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf, but I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday. There’s definitely a lot of golf to be played.’’

Fifty-four holes to be exact, but Fowler has the resume to handle them – even without a major title to his credit. He won the so-called “fifth major’’ at the 2015 Players Championship and captured the Honda Classic this year. He may well have inherited the title of “best player to have not won a major’’ after Sergio Garcia won the Masters in April.

“I take that as a compliment,’’ said Fowler. “There are a lot of really good players who 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.’’

Fowler’s round was highlighted by a choked down 5-iron second shot from 195 yards on the par-4 fourth hole. The plan was to lay up off the tee of that hole, so he had a longer approach shot after driving with a 2-iron.

“We missed our number by two yards which, from that distance with a 5-iron and trying to cut it, was pretty spot on,’’ said Fowler. No. 4 turned out to be Fowler’s last birdie (he started at No. 10). He made birdies on all four par-5s before walking hand in hand with girlfriend Allison Stokke, a former star pole vaulter.

Fowler played early in the first round and will tee off at 1:36 p.m. off the No. 1 tee in today’s second round paired again with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm. Both of Fowler’s partners struggled in Round 1. Casey and Schauffele will go off in the morning.