Tommy Fleetwood Hopes to Complete Special Season with Open at Birkdale
WHAT a difference a year makes. Just 12 months ago Tommy Fleetwood was struggling with his game and was ranked 188th in the world. He knew that he should be competing for the biggest and best titles on the European Tour and beyond. He had the game - he knew it, we knew it. But there was something missing.
He was striking the ball well enough, but when he got to the green he simply wasn't converting enough chances. He had to do something, and it had to be drastic. He was 25 years old and every time he stood over a putt and missed it his confidence took another little knock. His solution was to adopt the claw grip with his putter. It didn't look pretty, and it still doesn't.
The claw grip is something that golfers approaching the Seniors Tour adopt, isn't it? Well no, actually, it isn't. Adopting precisely that method transformed the fortunes of Sergio Garcia, who used it to win The Masters. There are many knowing sages within the game who believe that it might also be the answer for Rory McIlroy, but he refuses to countenance it. Maybe he should take a look around.
And maybe he should start by speaking to Fleetwood. Born in Southport, he was a brilliant amateur. He was runner-up at the 2008 Amateur Championship, won the 2009 Scottish Amateur Strokeplay Championship and played for Great Britain in the Walker Cup, and the following season he took the English Amateur and was runner-up at the New South wales Amateur, Spanish Amateur and European Amateur. He turned professional in 2011 winning his first Challenge Tour title at the Kazakhstan Open, securing his European Tour card for 2012.
His first season on tour was a disappointment, and he only kept his card by finishing in the top 10 at the South African Open, his final tournament of the year. What was most creditable about this performance was that Fleetwood went into the event knowing exactly what he had to do to keep his card, and he was able to do so.
The breakthrough for Fleetwood came in August 2013 when he won the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, beating Stephen Gallacher and Ricardo Gonzalez with a birdie at the first hole in a playoff. He was on his way. The following year he enjoyed three runners-up finishes, including two in a row, but the following year he could manage only three top 10 finishes and missed seven cuts and he became increasingly frustrated at his inability to add a second title. A rare highlight came at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in 2015, when he recorded an albatross on the par-five fourth hole during the second round.
Last year he had five top-10 finishes, but it was a nearly year, a season when he played a lot of exceptional golf but struggled to string four good rounds together. Throughout the season, however, there were encouraging signs. Plenty of them. And now he was starting to hole putts again.
In January he finally got back where he belongs when he beat Dustin Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal by a shot to win the Abu Dhabi Championship and a few weeks later he played brilliantly at the WGC-Mexico Championship, finishing runner-up to Johnson. Then came the Shenzhen International, where he lost in a playoff to Bernd Wiesberger. Fleetwood had begun the day eight shots off the lead but produced an incredible final holes, shooting a 63.
He now looked utterly at ease in world-class company and in June he came within a whisker of winning the US Open at Erin Hills. While all those around him were coming to grief in the knee-high rough, Fleetwood kept the ball in play and eventually finished in a tie for fourth, easily his best performance in a major. Still he wasn't finished. He then headed off to Club de National near Paris, where the Ryder Cup will be held next year, and produced another flawless final round, a 66 this time. It was good enough to give him a one-stroke victory over Peter Uihlien and it took him into the top 15 in the world rankings.
And now he heads to Birkdale, little more than a short walk from where he was born. He learnt to play his golf on links courses and he knows Birkdale well. It also goes without saying that he will have massive local support. Fleetwood's roots remain firmly in and around Southport. It is where he was born and where he grew up. He may now be earning millions of pounds, but he is a grounded young man who still enjoys a pint or two with the friends he grew up with.
Sometimes, fairytales do come true. For Fleetwood, winning The Open on his own doorstep would be precisely that. Don't rule it out.
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