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Rickie Fowler is fully engaged in quest for his first major title as U.S. Open begins Thursday

Los Angeles Times — Sam Farmer Los Angeles Times

June 13--SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- This place had no special significance to Rickie Fowler until last week. That's when the world's seventh-ranked golfer got engaged on Southampton Beach, a short distance from Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which will play host to the U.S. Open this week.

"Well, nothing against the area," Fowler said on a rainy Wednesday at Shinnecock. "There was nothing planned out. I just really didn't want to carry the ring around any longer."

Starting Thursday, Fowler would like to unburden himself of something else -- the label of being the world's best golfer who has yet to win a major championship. He has finished in the top five of majors eight times and runner-up in three, most recently in the Masters two months ago.

"I've been very close," said Fowler, 29, of Murrieta. "I feel like there's a few you could look at and say, 'If it wasn't for that one guy, we would have won.'

"We all know I'm good enough to win. I know I'm good enough to win. Being prepared and making it happen that specific week, there's been a few guys that have been very good at that -- Jack [Nicklaus], Tiger [Woods]. Phil [Mickelson] didn't get his first for a while, so there's still hope. I'm not too worried about it."

Fowler is in the middle of a traffic jam of hotshot U.S. players at the top of the golf world. Three of the six players ranked ahead of him are Americans -- Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth -- and five of the players ranked in the top seven are in their 20s.

"It almost feels like I'm back in high school and college," Spieth said. "These are the same guys we used to battle it out with then, and I'd win one, then they would win one. It's just blown up now because there was no coverage, no one really cared to watch us back then, and now people do."

The reigning champions of all four majors are Americans: Patrick Reed (Masters), Brooks Koepka (U.S. Open), Spieth (British Open) and Thomas (PGA Championship). No country has run the table that way since the U.S. in 1982.

"They have had a great run," said Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who has won four majors, among them the 2011 U.S. Open. "I mean, they hold all the majors, the team events, amateur, professional -- everything, I guess.

"Look, these things go in cycles. European golf was very healthy a few years ago for a long time. It seemed every major, someone from the island of Ireland turned up .... It doesn't seem that long ago."

Two of the biggest story lines in this week's major involve two of the most famous players in the history of the game.

Woods is back at the U.S. Open for the first time since 2015, rebooting a career derailed by a slew of problems on and off the course. The last time he won a major championship was 2008, his 14th such victory, and it looked inevitable that he would one day break Nicklaus' record of 18. The question now: Will Woods ever win again?

Mickelson is a U.S. Open victory away from a career Grand Slam. He has finished second in this tournament a record six times, including to Retief Goosen in 2004, the last time it was held at Shinnecock.

"My goal is not to try to win on Thursday," Mickelson said. "My goal is to stay in it on Thursday, stay in it Friday, and have an opportunity for the weekend."

There are 12 former U.S. Open champions in the 156-player field. Not surprisingly, Woods and Mickelson highlight some high-profile trios teeing off Thursday and Friday. Woods is playing with Johnson and Thomas; Mickelson with Spieth and McIlroy.

Oddsmakers at VegasInsider.com have the chances of Woods winning at 16 to 1, which is better than Mickelson (25-1), but worse than Johnson (11-1), Spieth and McIlroy (both 14-1), and Thomas (15-1).

Woods hasn't won a tournament since 2013, when he won five, but has come close this year. In March, he finished tied for second in the Valspar Championship, one shot behind winner Paul Casey. That was the first time since the 2013 Northern Trust Open that Woods put together four under-par rounds.

"I was very excited to be back in the mix on that Sunday at Valspar," he said. "I was right there with a chance .... Therein lies the trick, trying to get myself there. It's three, three-and-a-half days of really playing well to give myself a chance. And so far this year, I've only given myself a few chances, the handful of tournaments I've played."

Shinnecock offers plenty of challenges, not the least of which are the firm ground and gusting winds.

"It requires the players to control their trajectory, requires players to control their spin," said Mike Davis, chief executive of the U.S. Golf Assn. "They have to think about what happens when their ball lands, where it's going to bounce and roll to. It rewards players that can work the ball both left to right and right to left, knock down shots, hit high shots. So it really is what we're looking for as a test."

Davis said tournament organizers viewed rain showers in the area Wednesday "as a positive," and noted the weather is expected to be windy but dry the rest of the week.

In the U.S. Open here 14 years ago, course conditions were a problem. The "green" on the par-three seventh hole was a nightmare, baked brown and hard as slate. Groundskeepers tried to deal with the situation by frantically watering the surface between groups.

"The barometer for watering the seventh green was: Did anybody make double or triple?" Mickelson said. "If nobody double- or triple-bogeyed in the group in front of you, the green did not get water. If your group made a double or triple, the green got water for the group behind you."

As for Fowler, he's hoping the winds of change will bring him his first major championship victory. Ready to start the next chapter of his life with fiancée Allison Stokke, he's relaxed and upbeat. He played a practice round at nearby Friar's Head on Tuesday in a group that included Mickelson and a superstar from another sport.

"I'll tell you what," Fowler said, "Tom Brady can putt."

Ah, yes, Brady. Now there's someone who knows about big rings.

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