Fowler takes early lead at U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. — Erin Hills made its debut as a U.S. Open course Thursday with a most gracious welcome for Rickie Fowler, who matched the record to par in the opening round with a 7-under 65 on the longest course in major championship history.

Fowler had a one-shot lead over Paul Casey and U.S. Open newcomer Xander Schauffele.

They had plenty of company in red numbers, so much that Erin Hills set a U.S. Open record for the first round by yielding 44 sub-par rounds, breaking by five the record set in 1990 at Medinah.

Such low scoring might suggest the 11-year-old course was a cream puff, hardly the USGA’s idea of the ultimate test in golf.

Just don’t mention that to some of the best players in the world.

Jason Day had two triple bogeys and posted a 79, his worst score ever in the U.S. Open.

“I just played bad golf, man,” Day said.

Rory McIlroy joked earlier in the week that anyone who couldn’t hit such wide fairways “might as well pack your bags and go home.” He spent all day in the knee-high fescue and shot 78, his worst U.S. Open score.

“You cannot play this golf course if you’re not in position off the tee, and I wasn’t in position,” McIlroy said. “Obviously, I paid the price for it today.”

Defending champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson had just one birdie in a round of 75.

“You won’t get a better day for scoring,” Johnson said wistfully during the long walk to sign his card.

No one took advantage like Fowler.

Fowler, who shared the 36-hole lead at the Masters in April, never came seriously close to bogey because he was able to keep his ball in the short grass and avoided any trouble.

“You don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free,” Fowler said.

Fowler’s seven birdies were from no more than 12 feet, including three in a row around the turn. His 7-under par tied the record to par for the first round of a U.S. Open held by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf, who each shot 7-under 63 at Baltusrol in 1980.

“It is always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf,” Fowler said. “But I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday.”

Most bizarre about this day was that as many amateurs broke par as top-10 players in the world — two apiece.

Masters champion Sergio Garcia (No. 7) shot a 70. Fowler is at No. 9 in the world ranking. Scottie Scheffler, who just finished his junior year at Texas, had a 69 and amateur Cameron Champ had a 70 in his U.S. Open debut.

The opening round was without Phil Mickelson for the first time since 1993. He was in California for his daughter’s high school graduation, hopeful for enough of a weather delay to jet across the country to Wisconsin. But as the sun rose over Erin Hills, and the forecast was for no rain, Mickelson withdrew.

More startling than the low scores was smoke rising from about a half-mile away when a commercial blimp, not affiliated with the tournament, crashed into a field and burst into flames. The pilot, the only one aboard the blimp operated by Florida-based AirSign, had some burns, but was in stable condition, according to Pamela S. Sullivan, a senior air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

“I was teeing off and I looked up and saw it on fire, and I felt sick to my stomach,” Jamie Lovemark said after his round. “I had the shakes. I felt terrible for the people inside. I didn’t know what was going on. It was a horrible sight.”