One of the sport’s emerging twentysomethings has tasted victory this year, but now he is seeking more consistency, writes GARY LEMKE.
Tommy Fleetwood reckons that had he not become a professional golfer, he might have tried his hand at acting. ‘I was pretty good at drama,’ he says, ‘so, I’m just saying …’
Fleetwood certainly does do drama. He held off a star-studded field, which included three Major champions, to win the Abu Dhabi Championship in the UAE in January. He promptly followed that by missing the cut at the Qatar Masters and then again failing to go beyond 36 holes at the Dubai Desert Classic. A World Ranking that had seen him break into the top 50 for the first time then eased its way back out to 57th.
But, that’s how the golfing world is beginning to take note of Fleetwood. That second European Tour victory came three and a half years – 1 247 days to be exact – after his debut win at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles.
Since turning professional in 2010, the 26-year-old from Southport, England, has been bubbling under. An unpaid career, which saw him winning the 2009 Scottish Amateur Stroke Play title and the 2010 English Amateur, and a career-high No 3 in the R&A’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, was the perfect platform from which to be pitched against the big boys.
Southport FC, in English football’s fifth tier, is not the best club in Merseyside – it’s either Liverpool or Everton, depending on which side of the fence you sit on – and that’s pretty much how Fleetwood has found professional golf.
You go from being one of the big fish in a small pond, to a tiny fish in an ocean. Golf is in such rude health at the highest level that there’s a new name on the leaderboard each week. But in spite of the ups and downs so far, there’s every reason to believe Fleetwood is a name for the future.
As with so many before him, his reason for picking up a golf club was because his dad played the game. ‘My dad and my brother played and, being a kid, wanted to do what they did and my dad cut a few clubs down for me.
‘I started by hitting a few woods and putted every night, and no one complained about my school work. Golf has always been in the family; we watch it on TV at home and my friends want to play with me when I have a week off.
‘That win at the English Amateur was my last event as an amateur. I got to the British Amateur final at the age of 17 and would have been the youngest to win it had I done so.
‘Now, though, I’m living the dream. Seeing the world is a massive privilege and if I had any advice for a youngster, it would be to travel. Definitely.’
Fleetwood makes no bones about the fact he’s still learning his trade and the inconsistency proves that. Yet, he’s done what countless professionals haven’t been able to do: win on one of the major tours. The victory in Abu Dhabi showed he won’t stop there.
Fleetwood reckons that the advice given to him by Major champion Padraig Harrington is worth banking. ‘When I was on the Challenge Tour, he said you must do your own thing until you know what you need to do to improve. That made sense to me. I listened to him.’
Which explains why there will be some good weeks on Tour and some indifferent weeks.
When Fleetwood talks us through his golf bag, he lists his 7-iron as his favourite club, although Abu Dhabi showed that at this level there are no obvious weaknesses.
He averaged 302m with his driver off the tee, which was still 20m per drive behind US Open champion Dustin Johnson, but ‘DJ’ is one of the longest hitters to be found anywhere and when you’re bombing them 300m off the tee, you’re suddenly making golf a lot easier.
The 7-iron has some good memories for Fleetwood. At the 2013 BMW Championship at Wentworth he made only the third albatross in the event’s rich history when he holed out with that club from 198 yards on the par-five 5th hole.
Next on the radar is to crack the world’s top 50 and earn a dream spot in the field at The Masters.
‘The win in Abu Dhabi brought us closer to the overall goal of the year – to get into the top 50 and then get the World Ranking up as high as we can,’ Fleetwood said.
The northern Englishman said the win in January just added events to his overall event campaign in 2017.
‘Abu Dhabi opens up a couple more tournaments now: the WGCs. I want to be playing that sort of schedule, where it’s World Golf Championships and Majors.
‘It has put us closer, but it’s just the start. We had to do something like that to get anywhere close. So you don’t want to take your foot off the gas. You’ve got to keep kicking on,’ he added.
One of the reasons Fleetwood is being tipped for bigger things by some of the game’s aficionados is his level-headedness and determination to work harder.
‘I had a rough time from July 2015 to July 2016. I was really struggling with my game,’ he said. ‘I tried changing my swing because I thought it would make me better. I thought it would make me a world-class golfer. I was naive and silly and got going the wrong way. I couldn’t do the things I was trying to do.
‘From there, the strengths of my game, like my driving, went completely; I was struggling off the tee. The ball would fall out left in an exaggerated draw. I couldn’t get it off the tee and I just had way too many bad shots. It was killing my golf game. When your strengths have gone, that’s when it becomes hardest.’
Going back to his childhood coach, Pete Cowen, revived Fleetwood’s fortunes. In Abu Dhabi, he found 66 greens out of 72 in regulation to prove he was justified in sticking with Nike, despite the brand pulling out of the sport.
‘I’ve used Nike clubs since I was 13,’ he said. ‘It’s the best equipment for me. When Nike was making clubs, it was the best for me then. I’m not going to change just for the sake of it now that we have a chance.
‘You have to be honest with yourself,’ Fleetwood said. ‘It is easy to go out practising on your own, but playing with guys like Henrik Stenson and Graeme McDowell was a big reality check for me. I knew that day [at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral] I had to do something about it, and Pete was going to be the man to do it. As much as he is the best coach in the world, it’s also about being in the stable of players he has, Ryder Cup stars and Major winners. There’s also the technical standpoint, where he is making me a million times better. Mentally it’s great to be a part of the group.’
And there Fleetwood goes. Bye-bye top 100, hello to top 50, surely? Which is when the doors start opening. That’s where the big boys play and suddenly he is starting to feel more like Liverpool or Everton than his home club, Southport.
‘When you are playing in the same event as guys like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, it is easy to see what you need to do to get where they are.
‘There are a lot of things the best players do better and some of that relates to structure in their lives, a team around them. That enables them to compete day in, day out. You are looking at making small differences that add up to big things.
‘Hopefully it’s just a matter of time for me.’
– This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Compleat Golfer.