Sign of things to come?

Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer

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.

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