It was, amidst the many accolades afforded the tragically late Jarrod Lyle, the one the big fella might have appreciated most.
“Scripted” (whatever that means) to wear blue in the opening round of the 100th US PGA Championship at Bellerive, Rickie Fowler switched to a yellow shirt in a touching tribute to the recently departed Lyle. On the peak of his cap – “front and centre”—was a Leuk the Duck pin, a symbol of the Challenge organisation for which Lyle was an ambassador.
It worked too, on more than one level. Not only did it draw deserved attention to the much-loved Aussie’s legacy, it clearly inspired Fowler. Six birdies, 11 pars and one bogey saw the 29-year old Californian round in 65, good enough to run second in the final major championship of 2018, one shot behind compatriot Gary Woodland. Maybe, just maybe, the “best player never to win a major” tag that so weighs down Fowler will finally be unloaded come Sunday evening.
Still, that is for the future. More immediately, his third 65 in major championship play this year wasn’t Fowler’s primary consideration. Post-round, his first priority was to talk of Lyle.
“The last few weeks, especially last week and this week, we've all been thinking about Jarrod a lot,” he said. “It's definitely tough, especially talking with some of the guys who knew Jarrod better than most out here. Guys like (Adam) Scotty and (Marc) Leish and a lot of the Aussies, obviously. I also think Jarrod wouldn't want us out here feeling sorry for him or feeling bad. He'd probably come out here and kick us in the butt and tell us to man up and go have some fun.
“So it's a little bit bittersweet. I’m trying to go out there and keep living life like he did. It’s unfortunate that he's not here with us.”
The BPNTWAM question came up too, of course. And, as ever, Fowler played a straight bat to what has long been the missing link in his otherwise stellar career.
“I always have hope,” he said. “I know Phil (Mickelson) didn’t win his first major until his 30s. So it's not something I necessarily worry about. I’ll just keep putting myself in position, in contention. I have had plenty of runner-ups. Jack (Nicklaus) did too. I’ll just keep beating down that door.”
In contrast to Fowler, Woodland’s record in major championship is strangely bereft of success for one so long off the tee and so obviously talented. A pair of T-12s is the best the current Waste Management (Phoenix Open) champion can muster in 27 previous attempts.
Not surprisingly given the outpouring of emotion that has followed Lyle’s untimely death, Fowler was far from alone in expressing his sorrow.
World No.10 Jason Day was another following his opening 67 – the best score shot by any of the five Australians in the 156-man field. It was also his 18th score of 67 or better in majors since 2011. Only Rory McIlroy can match that figure.
“It's hard because you sit there and you know him and he's a buddy of yours – and he's not there anymore,” said the Queenslander, who, like Fowler, made only one bogey. “He's never going to come back. That's the hardest thing. Now I'm tearing up.
“I lived across the street from him when we first started out in Orlando. He battled half his life. And the crazy thing is he was always upbeat and positive. You could be playing terrible, but with him you always walked off the course happy.”
That was sort of the case for two of the other Aussies in the 156-man field. Both Adam Scott (70) and Marc Leishman (68) gave themselves an obvious chance of further progress with solid rounds in the generally tougher – Woodland apart – afternoon conditions. The same, however, cannot be said of Cameron Smith. Making the halfway cut will be his primary concern after a disappointing 74.
As for the fifth and least-known member of the Aussie contingent, the Arizona and Utah-based club professional, trick-shot artist and club inventor, Craig Hocknull, got himself round the premises in a creditable 72.
The son of Scottish parents and born in Papua New Guinea, the 43-year old proprietor of Sabre Golf was steadiness personified. Only three times did he drop a shot over the 7,335-yard course; his lone birdie arriving at the par-4 7th, where his approach finished three-feet from the cup.
Not surprisingly, Hocknull – who qualified for this event by finishing T-12 in the PGA Professional Championship and had his son, JC, on the bag – thoroughly enjoyed his maiden round in any of the four majors. He did admit to shaking slightly when teeing-up now and then, but only when the enormity of his situation and the size of the galleries hit him. Otherwise, he coped fine with the occasion.
“I tried to stay focused,” he said. “It's hard out there. I felt like it was a very solid performance. You just don't realise all the different noises that you actually try to not hear. But overall I thought it was awesome. I had a great day out there.”