Rickie Fowler overcomes recent struggles to grab early Travelers Championship lead

CROMWELL, Conn. — Rickie Fowler has not had a solid season, failing to contend in every event he has played, coming short of even recording a top-10 finish.

Yet, he discovered something on the greens on Thursday, which explains why he posted a 6-under 64 to open the Travelers Championship. He did not make a single bogey, either, as he shares the early lead with Akshay Bhatia and Kurt Kitayama.

“I made a nice putt just to save par and get the round going. Good up-and-down, that kind of got me going,” Fowler explained.

“Sometimes, I would almost rather that than birdie the first hole because then it’s kind of downhill from there. So, yeah, got off to a nice start. Birdied the 2nd. Started to see some balls go in, and making putts helps free up the rest of the game to where you don’t feel like you have to be perfect.”

Fowler missed his opening tee shot to the right, which nestled down in the rough. He then hacked it out, finding more thick stuff 44 yards short of the hole. An early dropped shot loomed, but Fowler went on to save his par from eight feet away. He also called that his best shot of the day.

But a big-time par save like that early in a round serves as a big boost of momentum, and Fowler fed off that. He only needed an incredible 23 putts to get around on Thursday, ranking 1st among the 71 players in this field in strokes gained putting. He even made a 38-footer for birdie on the par-4 17th, capping his best day of the season on the greens.

Yet, his putting prowess on Thursday is a far cry from what he has done this season.

Fowler ranks 131st on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting and 163rd in strokes gained overall. No wonder why he has yet to record a top 10 this season, with his best finish being a T-18 at Harbour Town. He also arrived in Connecticut fresh off missed cuts at the Memorial and the U.S. Open, the former of which he carded an 82 during his second round.

“I feel like a lot of it can go back to not putting well—putting well helps free up other things,” Fowler explained.

“You’re not seeing putts go in, and it adds some extra stress to having to hit greens or hit it closer, chip it close; that circle gets quite a bit bigger once you see some go in. That’s a big part. But when you’re not able to take advantage of it when you hit it well, putting is probably the easiest thing to point to. It does help a lot, but that’s not always the only thing.”

Fowler made 123 feet of putts on Thursday, which certainly freed him up. But now the question is, can he continue to rely on his hot putter? And, what if he did not get up and down at the 1st? How would this round have played out? At any rate, we will have to wait to find out. But for now, Fowler finds himself atop the leaderboard for the first time all season, a welcome sight for many.

Jack Milko is a golf staff writer for SB Nation’s Playing Through. Be sure to check out @_PlayingThrough for more golf coverage. You can follow him on Twitter @jack_milko as well.

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