Tommy Fleetwood Picks Up Where He Left Off With Brilliant Victory in Abu Dhabi
THERE are those who wondered how Tommy Fleetwood would follow a year in which he won two tournaments, finished second to Dustin Johnson in the WGC-Mexico Championship, contended in the US Open and finished top of the pile in the Race to Dubai. He wasted no time in providing the most emphatic of answers, producing a blistering back nine to hold off a world-class field and successfully defend his Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Rock on Tommy!
It is not so very long ago that he was struggling to keep his card. Today, after his fourth victory on the European Tour, he stands on the verge of world’s top 10. It has been an extraordinary transformation. And guess what? He is leading the Race to Dubai again.
The 27-year-old said: “I feel quite emotional. This is the first time I have turned up to defend a trophy and I didn’t want to give this one back. I played great all week. Playing with Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson on the first two days, I will never have a better threeball than that. I holed some great putts on the back nine. I have put in a lot of work. Last year was the best of my life and I prepared for this season as if I hadn’t won the Race to Dubai. I am still hungry and this performance is validation that I can still do it. My best golf is getting better but the key is that I am still scoring well when I am not at my best. Getting into the top 10 world is really cool."
For much of the final round it had looked like another Englishman, Ross Fisher, was going to have things his own way. Fisher grabbed the initiative in the opening stages of the final round after a brilliant start to his round. Chasing his first European Tour title since the Tshwane Open in 2014, he began the day level with Thomas Pieters on 16 under par, but he holed a 50-foot eagle putt at the second to give him one-shot lead. Pieters birdied the same hole but when Fisher almost holed his tee shot at the par-three fourth he found himself two ahead of Pieters and McIlroy, who birdied the second and fourth holes.
At that stage Fleetwood and his fellow Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick were tied for fourth on 16 under. Pieters slipped back with consecutive bogeys on the fifth and sixth, but he did get one of those dropped shots back on the eighth to remain in touch on 17 under. By the time he reached the turn Fisher was three ahead. His first mistake came at the 10th, when he hooked his drive into the trees and was unable to find the fairway with his second at the par five. He could only hack it back into play with his third and when he put his approach into a green side bunker he was staring a double-bogey in the face. But Fisher holed a 15-footer for a bogey and was still two ahead.
Fleetwood came to life on the back nine. The defending champion has grown in confidence since winning the Race to Dubai and had played steadily all week. Having reached the turn in 35, the man from Southport birdied the 10th, 12th, 13th and 15th to join Fisher in the lead at 20 under. McIlroy was two behind on 18 under, with Pieters a shot further adrift.
Two huge moments ????— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 21, 2018
Holes 15 & 16 - combined length of putts holed over 55ft pic.twitter.com/0tPJEu5p2w
There were signs that Fisher was beginning to struggle. He repeatedly backed off crucial shots, as if second-guessing himself. A golden opportunity to take the lead by himself came and went at the 14th when he missed a six-foot putt for birdie. And he was made to pay when, moments later, Fleetwood holed a 35-footer at the 16th to move to 21 under. It was his fifth birdie in seven holes and he was beginning to look irresistible. Fisher hit a poor shot at the 15th and dropped a shot. All of a sudden, Fleetwood was two ahead and in dreamland. His birdie putt at the 17th burnt the edge of the hole but he finished in spectacular style with another birdie at the 18th. He came home 30, a final round of 65 taking him to 22 under par.
After a birdie at the 16th, Fisher came to the final hole needing an eagle to force a playoff but he carved his final tee shot way right and was fortunate to find a perfect lie in the rough. His second shot narrowly missed the green and had to hole his chip but was unable to do so and had to settle for second place on 20 under.
Had European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley written the script, he couldn’t have come up with anything better. A world-class field had assembled and they duly produced. Henrik Stenson, the 2016 Open champion, recorded seven birdies and 11 pars in a magnificent final round of 65 to finish the week on 15 under, one ahead of Paul Casey. World No 1 Dustin Johnson was 14 under despite not being at his best. It is a measure of just how good the Dustinator is. “I was a little bit off all week,” he said. “I didn’t have my best stuff with me but I feel that my game is in pretty good shape. Tommy has a great all-round game and I feel sure that he will be contending for big tournaments this year.” There were also some encouraging signs from Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who finished tied with his namesake along with promising Belgian Thomas Detry. Chris Paisley, who won the South African Open last week, continued his brilliant play to end the tournament on 17 under par in a tie for fifth place.
And what about McIlroy? He didn’t win, but this was his first competitive outing since the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October. He ended his season after that tournament, insisting that he wanted to go away and spend the winter working on his game. He spent most of last year battling to overcome a niggling rib injury and finished his campaign without a single victory – only the second time in his career he has endured a winless season.
True to his word, he returned to action in Abu Dhabi in magnificent form. He has clearly spent time in the gym and hit the ball superbly all week. He told us at the beginning of the week that he had been playing well but admitted that doing so at home is one thing, doing it in the heat of battle quite another. He drove the ball beautifully and struck some fabulous iron shots. There are still some signs of frailty on the greens. However, he dropped just three shots all week and recorded 19 birdies and an eagle. It all added up to a 72-hole total of 270, 18 under par, alongside Fitzpatrick. Pieters dropped a shot at the last to end the week on 17 under.
McIlroy is back and will be the man to beat at the Dubai Desert Classic.
He was also fulsome in his praise for Fleetwood. “To shoot a final round of 65 on this golf course is hugely impressive,” he said. “He will be a welcome addition to the Ryder Cup team and is now quite clearly one of the best in the world."
And Masters champion Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open by five shots after carding a final-round three-under-par 68 on the Serapong course. Garcia, 38, birdied the first, seventh and eighth holes as the weather finally cleared after two days of rain disruptions to finish 14 under for the tournament. Japan's Satoshi Kodaira shared second place with South Africa's Shaun Norris.
"It's always great to start with a win," said Garcia, who was playing in his first tournament of 2018. "Hopefully I can ride on this momentum. I'm extremely happy with how the week went. It was a tough day and a tough week, with the stopping and going."
There was more good news for European golf when Jon Rahm holed a 12-foot birdie putt at the fourth hole of a playoff with Andrew Landry to win the CareerBuilder Challenge at PGA West. It took him to second in both the world rankings and the FedEx Cup ahead of his defence of the Farmers Insurance Open.
“I would like to win one on the PGA Tour without having to stress out on the last few holes,” Rahm, 23, said. “But, to be honest I couldn’t have dreamed of a better way to do it. Tournaments like this build character.”
Rahm started the final round two shots off the lead, but shot a final-round 67 to finish at 22-under 266. Landry, playing in the final group, showed some character when he made an 11-foot birdie putt on the final green to force extra holes. .
It was a huge tournament for Landry, a Web.com Tour graduate who began the week ranked 184th in the world. He gave himself birdie putts on each of the four playoff holes, but was unable to convert any of them.
“That was outstanding to play the way he did,” Rahm said. “Hitting right after me every single time and to hit the fairway and the green right after me, it’s really hard to do, it’s not easy. The pressure was on him.”
Jon Rahm's swing has more in common with the Golden Bear's than you might think. pic.twitter.com/8FkP6UikxW— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 22, 2018
Rahm missed a nine-foot birdie putt of his own on the first extra hole after Landry missed from 17 feet. It was Landry who missed on the next hole, failing to convert from 8 feet. Both players two-putted the next hole, the par-four 10th, before they knocked their approach shots close on their third trip to the 18th in the playoff.
“I did not want to come back the next day and play,” Rahm said. “After Andrew hit his shot, I had a good angle and a good lie in the rough, so I decided to take dead aim and hope for the best.”Rahm made his 12-foot birdie putt, and Landry failed to convert from a foot closer.
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