By JAMES RAIA, Associated Press
NAPA, Calif. (AP) — Rickie Fowler began his 15th professional season Thursday. From clubs to coach to caddie, just about everything is new for the five-time PGA Tour winner.
Fowler, whose last victory was the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open, enjoyed immediate success.
He shot a 5-under 67 and was among nine players who finished their rounds four shots behind leader Justin Lower at the Fortinet Championship.
Lower, beginning his second PGA Tour season, concluded his career-low, 9-under 63 in the early evening at Silverado Resort and Spa. He held a two-shot cushion over defending champion Max Homa and a three-shot lead over Byeong Hun An, S.H. Kim and J.J. Spaun at the fog-delayed PGA Tour season opener.
Lower, whose career-best finish in 28 PGA Tour starts dating to 2013 was a tie for eighth in July at the Barbasol Championship, had a bogey-free round.
“I’ll take it. I birdied half the holes, so that’s always a good start, I guess,” Lower said. “I’m honestly just happy to be in the position I am having I guess, full status.”
Homa, finishing just before play was called because of darkness, birdied two of the last three holes for his 65.
Fowler, who had a bogey-free round, has only four top-10 finishes in the past three seasons. He recently began using a new putter and this week is also using a new set of irons.
Once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, Fowler is now 176th. With his new clubs, Fowler hopes to rekindle his career with the assistance of a new caddie and new coach.
On the bag is friend and veteran PGA Tour caddie Ricky Romano. Butch Harmon, who has worked with Fowler in the past, replaced John Tillery, who was Fowler’s swing coach for the past three years.
“Yeah, I always like it when there’s a bogey-free round in there,” Fowler said. “For the most part, there wasn’t an issue today other than having to make a 15-footer when I hit it into the bunker. Other than that, it was a fairly simple day.”
An, a three-time PGA Tour runner-up who regained his card via the Korn Ferry Tour, had seven birdies and one bogey en route to his 66.
Kim, a PGA Tour rookie, had eight birdies and two bogeys in the opening round of the PGA Tour’s new season — its final time using a wraparound schedule.
Two groups were on the course Thursday morning when play was suspended for 90 minutes because of fog. There were 35 players left on the course when darkness halted play at 7:20 p.m. PDT. Among those, Robby Shelton had the best round going at 5 under through 13 holes. The first round was to resume Friday morning.
Fowler missed the FedExCup playoffs for the first time in his career in 2021. He got into the first playoff event this past season, the FedEx St. Jude Championship in August, but did not advance.
“I’ve had some good weeks in the past few years, but it shouldn’t just be a few weeks in those years, there needs to be more,” Fowler said. “I’m just trying to get to be more consistent.”
Greyson Sigg, Nick Taylor, Sahith Theegala, Scott Harrington, Matti Schmid, Emiliano Grillo, Sung Kang and Brice Garnett all matched Fowler’s 67. Grillo won the event in 2015 and had two runner-up finishes last season.
Fowler hadn’t played in the event since 2010 when it was played at CordeValle.
“Well, not going to the playoffs and not being on a Presidents Cup team, that’s been really the only reason I haven’t been to Napa yet,” Fowler said. “I’ve always heard good things about the event, so not to say thanks to bad play or anything, but that’s kind of the reason we’re able to be here this week.”
Fowler was pleased with his overall play, particularly off the tee.
“I set the round up by driving it fairly nicely, especially the second half of the day,” Fowler said. “And I was just able to keep moving forward. There weren’t many times where I had to play too defensively.”
Matt Kuchar, whose 2019 win at the Sony Open was the last of his nine PGA Tour titles, was among several players at 4 under.
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