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Rickie Fowler, blisters and all, opens RMC with 67 The Detroit News

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Detroit — Rickie Fowler has been battling blisters.

On Thursday, he could've had a blistering round — if not for one hole.

Fowler "settled" for a 5-under 67 on Thursday in the opening round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Club, leaving him two shots off the lead and squarely in the hunt in a bunched-up leaderboard.

Last year, Fowler started with a 68, which was only good enough to be five shots back of eventual tournament champion Nate Lashley.

"Anytime you make seven birdies," said Fowler, "it's a good day."

And anytime you can swing a golf club without feeling constant pain, well, that's a good day, too.

Fowler, in the midst of one of his most-challenging seasons on the PGA Tour — we're talking about results, though certainly the COVID-19 shutdown didn't help — has been toying with his swing and his grip. That means a lot of practice and a lot of swings, and that often can mean a lot of blisters.

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He fought through them at Colonial and Hilton Head, but missed the cut at both stops.

Last week, at home, it got so bad, he couldn't even interlock his grip. He had to practice with a modified baseball grip. That could've worked in his favor. It forced him to just focus on the fundamentals, not necessarily perfection.

"So once I got here, Tuesday was the first day I was actually able to start hitting balls somewhat interlock," Fowler said Thursday afternoon. "It was still bothering me, but they're healing.

"Today was the first day that it felt at least good enough to go ahead and go."

Fowler not so long ago made 21 consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour, a model of consistency, even if he doesn't win as much as a superstar should (five PGA Tour wins).

This season, he's made the cut in just three regular-season, full-field events, missing the last two.

But on a steamy Thursday morning at Detroit Golf Club, Fowler started with two birdies in his first three holes, then back-to-back at Nos. 14 and 15, the first two holes of Area 313. That got him to 4 under and atop the early leaderboard at the time, until disaster struck at the tough par-4 18th hole. Fowler found the right rough off the tee, then found the rough in the ditch short right of the green.

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His lie was so nasty and buried — players have been amazed about the thickness of the rough this week — he could only slash it out. He went over the green, and couldn't get up and down, making a double bogey.

"There's that little ditch that runs in front of 18 green and a lot of spots really aren't too bad, but I think it one-hopped into a thick area and it went all the way to the bottom. It was basically sitting on dirt, but there was probably, I don't know, eight inches of grass there and I thought it was going to kind of just pop up when I hit it and it kind of came out low and left, which was not where I wanted it to go," Fowler said.

"Next time we'll just hit it in the fairway, won't have that problem."

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Hitting fairways typically is a strength for Fowler, but he missed five fairways in the first round, including on the second and third holes, his 11th and 12th of the day.

But he was able to birdie both of those anyway, and birdied the par-5 fourth hole for three in a row. That got him to 5 under, and again, atop the leaderboard, if even for a few moments.

Fowler finished tied for 46th here in 2019, the first year of the tournament that is sponsored by his primary sponsor, Rocket Mortgage. He's been the de facto host for the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

He'd prefer to be attending Sunday's closing ceremony as more than just a de facto host, however. Fowler last won in February 2019. His game has gone south enough that he's not even a guarantee to make the 2020 Ryder Cup team, not there is likely to be a 2020 Ryder Cup.

Fowler's thoughts are more short-term than that, though — especially here in Detroit, which he's taken to sort of adopted as his home away from home, at least for a week.

"It always sucks not being there on the weekend," Fowler said of his rash of missed cuts. "You've got to take the positives from it, which we've done.

"It's nice to get off to a good start here in Detroit."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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