Sign of things to come?

Rickie Fowler and Martin KaymerRoss Kinnaird/Getty Images

PINEHURST, N.C. -- He channeled his inner Payne Stewart during the opening round of the U.S. Open, and perhaps there was some good karma that came from his fashion statement.

Rickie Fowler didn't win the U.S. Open on Sunday -- he didn't even come close -- but he nonetheless tied for the top spot in the B Flight of the competition at Pinehurst No. 2 and finished eight strokes behind winner Martin Kaymer, along with Erik Compton.

It was Fowler's first time in the final group of a major and his best finish. And after a tie for fifth at the Masters, two of his best three finishes in 2014 have come in major championships.

"I felt really comfortable, which is a very good thing,'' said Fowler, who shot a 2-over-par 72 and was one of just three players to finish under par for the tournament. "I've only played a handful of final groups, and this is my first one in a major. The more experience you can get in the final groups -- especially in the majors and in contention at majors -- it definitely helps for down the road.

"With the way I kind of handled myself and kept going through the process on each shot, there were only a handful of shots this week that I wasn't really prepared to hit and hit without being ready to hit. So I will definitely take a lot away from this week and the pairing today as well.''

There is no doubt that Fowler got to witness some exceptional golf. Taking a five-shot lead into the final round, Kaymer only briefly wavered on the front side. Nobody got closer than 4 strokes, and the German eventually pulled away for one of the largest margins of victory in U.S. Open history.

For Fowler, who wore knickers on Thursday in honor of the late Payne Stewart -- whom the golfer said was his favorite player as a child -- it would have been a lot to ask to close the difference.

But the questions will come regardless, because Fowler has -- so far -- not lived up to his potential. The hype has exceeded the victories, with his only win coming two years ago at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Given the fancy clothes -- he wore all orange on Sunday in honor of his alma mater, Oklahoma State -- the endorsements and the overall attention he has received, it has left many wondering when he will deliver.

"It doesn't matter what I do -- I'm always going to have critics,'' Fowler said. "The amount of people that don't like what I do ... I'm not really worried about them. I have so many more people who are supporters of me and fans. ... I'm just going to keep playing well and keep moving forward. Obviously, there have been some great finishes, but I want to win, and I want to win more.''

This was another step toward that end. Fowler, 25, started working with noted instructor Butch Harmon this past fall. They began earnest efforts in December to remove a loop from Fowler's swing that had led to consistency problems.

Whenever there are swing changes, growing pains ensue. Fowler finished third at the WGC Match Play in February, but that came after three straight missed cuts. He missed three more cuts after the Masters, and his best finish since was a tie for 13th this past week in Memphis.

"It's always ongoing,'' Fowler said. "There's still times where I don't feel great over the ball. I wouldn't say it's so much the swing changes -- everything is pretty ingrained, and everything feels really natural to me -- it's just more trusting it, going through the process, making sure I feel comfortable about hitting the golf shot, and then going and doing it. So I'm going to continue to work with Butch, and we're going to keep working on making my golf swing better and better.''

Fowler need only look to Kaymer for inspiration. Just a few months ago, Kaymer had dropped to outside the top 60 in the world, after reaching No. 1 early in 2011. The slide was slow and painful; Kaymer rarely contended, besides winning late in 2011 and again in a limited field event in South Africa in 2012.

There was the big putt that clinched the Ryder Cup for Europe in 2012, but no victories until he broke through in May at the Players Championship. Now Kaymer is the first player to win the Players and the U.S. Open in the same year, and he has been vindicated for having committed to the changes he endured. It is, perhaps, confirmation for Fowler to stick with the process.

"Very aggressive. Very brave. Just a solid player,'' Kaymer said of Fowler. "He doesn't make many mistakes mentally. He doesn't make many mistakes strategy-wise. Today he hit a couple of bad shots, and that put him into some bad positions, but he saved it very well. On (No. 4), when he made double-bogey, he came back with a birdie the next hole. He's a very strong player. And the way he made par on 16, it was very good.

"You know, I hit two good shots, and I made 5. And he hit one shocking shot and two good ones, and he made 4. But that's important as a player that you don't care always how well you have to hit some golf shots, as long as you get it done. And he got it done very well. I was just hoping for him that he makes birdie on 18 because I think he really deserved to finish second here.''

That birdie putt didn't drop, but Fowler was far from despondent. He views his success in the past two major championships as a huge piece of his development. Now we'll see if he can build on it.

"It's going to happen,'' he said. "It's just a matter of time.''