The Race to Dubai is making its final stop with Tommy Fleetwood within touching distance of Europe’s first prize, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
The list of twentysomethings dominating golf’s landscape is undeniable proof that the sport’s future is now. This is the golden generation.
Sure, the world No 1 is a 33-year-old, while this year’s Masters was won by a grizzled 37-year-old who had been knocking on the door of the Majors for what seemed a lifetime.
Then there’s that 41-year-old who continues to keep Father Time at arm’s length. But Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson are mere exceptions to the rule that says, if you’re not in your twenties, you are nowhere.
Consider that Jon Rahm will turn 23 during the Nedbank Golf Challenge, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas are only 24, Hideki Matsuyama is 25, Tyrrell Hatton 26, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed 27, Rory McIlroy 28, Rickie Fowler nearly 29, while Jason Day only turns 30 in November.
All these players are in the top 20 of the World Ranking. As is Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who arrives at the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City with one eye fixed on the Race to Dubai title. In other words, he’s the favourite to win the treasured European Tour Order of Merit.
And yes, Fleetwood, too, is only 26 and an emerging force, having started out the year at No 99 in the world. By the time he arrives at the Gary Player Country Club
he will be seeking a third victory of the year, one which has been life-changing on and off the course.
Fleetwood might have missed the cut in the only Masters he has played at, but the mere fact he was invited came on the back of a runner-up finish to Johnson at the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, which lifted him into the world’s top 50 for the first time.
By the time he teed up at the second Major of 2017, Fleetwood had climbed to 32 in the world, before a tie for fourth at the US Open in June saw him move to 21st. Victory at the French Open in July lifted him to 15th and he’s settled in comfortably as a world top-20 player ever since.
He has also become a first-time father after he and his partner, Clare, celebrated the birth of their son. As has become the norm in this day and age, the announcement wasn’t made in the Liverpool Echo – Merseyside’s biggest publication – but on Twitter. ‘The most beautiful and proud moment of my life! Franklin Fleetwood born at 12.33 on 28/9/17 at 7pounds 6ounces,’ the golfer tweeted.
The arrival came in the week of the British Masters and it was one of six events Fleetwood skipped, something that could have seen his dreams of winning the Race to Dubai extinguished.
He returned to action in early-October to tee it up at the Dunhill Links Championship, the tournament that sees golfers mixed with celebrity and sporting royalty and where the play is spread over three courses – the St Andrews Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns. It is also funded by South Africa’s Johann Rupert.
‘Clare told me to get back to work, she wants rid of me now,’ he told reporters before that tournament. ‘It’s time to come back. As much as I would love to stay at home and do all them lovely family things, I’m a golfer, so I had to come back. It’s a massively important time for me and I know what’s on the line. I would love to win the Race to Dubai, absolutely love it. I can’t get away from that, I can’t say I won’t think about it and go through my processes and all that, because it’s the goal now.
‘And in my position, the nice thing is we don’t really get an off-season these days. So that six, seven weeks has kind of been that. Sometimes it freshens you up, sometimes you come back really rusty. We’ll see how it goes.’
Well, it went rather swimmingly, all things considered. Although Fleetwood only finished in a tie for 25th, his second-round 63 at Carnouste – a course record – caught all the headlines. ‘Any time you have a course record, especially on a golf course like this, it’s brilliant,’ he said. ‘I’m very proud. I played well, putted well. It
just unravels really, sometimes it does that. Most of the times, your best rounds are when you don’t quite realise what you were doing.’
It was the first of two course records of the week, which wouldn’t have pleased Gary Player, with Ross Fisher following up with a 61 at St Andrews. This came after South Africa’s Branden Grace had compiled a 62 at The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale – where his response echoed that of Fleetwood, in terms of having been unaware of the magnitude of his achievement. In Grace’s case it was the first time a 62 had been shot at a men’s Major.
Fleetwood will arrive at the Nedbank Golf Challenge with a target on his back. Winning the Race to Dubai was also an ambition for the Spaniards Garcia and Rahm, who wanted to become the first from their homeland since the great Seve Ballesteros to achieve the feat.
Fleetwood’s three previous appearances at the Gary Player Country Club haven’t exactly seen him bring the magnificent course to its knees, with finishes of 14th, 21st and 14th, although he arrives at Sun City with bigger expectations this time.
Like so many before him, his reason for picking up a golf club was because his dad played the game. ‘Me dad and me brother played and, being a little kid, I wanted to
do what they did and my dad cut a few clubs down for me.
‘I started by hitting a few woods and did putting every night and no one complained about my school work. Golf has always been in the family, we watch it on the TV at home and my friends want to play with me when I have a week off.
‘The win at the 2010 English Amateur was my last event as an amateur, and I got to the British Amateur final at the age of 17. I 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 has also had to face reality and come to terms with his ambitions and what it takes to not only survive, but also thrive at the highest level. And that’s where he is plying his trade, in the rarefied atmosphere of the world’s top 20.
‘I had a really rough time from July 2015 to July 2016; I was 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 a bit naive and silly and just 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 off. When your strengths have gone, that’s when it becomes hardest.’
Going back to his childhood coach, Pete Cowen, earlier this year revived Fleetwood’s fortunes.
‘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 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.’
Fleetwood will need his driver to be ‘firing’ if he hopes to tame the Gary Player course, for the rough punishes anything wayward and there are watery graves and magnetic bunkers dotted everywhere.
Obviously the 26-year-old Everton fan would like to be recognised more for his ball striking than for his long hair, but the fact is it has become something of a trademark – and fans instantly recognise him by it.
‘My dad is going bald, so I might as well make the most of my hair as long as I have it,’ Fleetwood told Britain’s Mirror tabloid. ‘I enjoy pushing the fashion boundaries in golf. It’s a bit of fun, isn’t it? I’ve tried the bandana/headband look, and now I’m liking wearing some tapered trousers, too. Golf is moving into the future with new formats and rules, so why not in fashion too?’
Increasing fame, recognition and his lofty position in the Race to Dubai standings is ensuring life is good, and a secure future for him and his expanding family is a work in progress. Not that Fleetwood claims to be driven by sterling, euros or dollars.
‘We had nowt growing up, but as kids you don’t worry or think about it,’ Fleetwood told the Daily Mail. ‘I’ve talked to my dad about why I don’t think about money, even now, when it makes the world go round in so many ways, and I know my lacklustre approach annoys Clare [who is also his manager] sometimes. But what can you do?’
At the moment he can do little wrong and now that he’s crashed through the top 100, then top 50 and into the top 20, the next chapter is about to start for the Englishman. He’s proof it’s not only American twentysomethings who are invited to dine at the top table of the sport.
The Nedbank Golf Challenge is routinely referred to as ‘Africa’s Major’ – although that reference has become rather shopworn, especially given it doesn’t attract the top Americans who are dominating the sport, and it has been 10 years since a South African lifted the trophy on home soil.
Trevor Immelman triumphed in 2007 at Sun City and a few months after that he went on to claim the famed Green Jacket of The Masters. Danny Willett is another who won the NGC (2014) before going on to conquer Augusta, in 2016.
Despite a world ranking that has slipped too close to No 50 for comfort, Branden Grace has had a good two previous years at Sun City, with a fourth-place finish in 2015 followed by third in 2016, and he will have many supporters who feel he can break the South African drought at this magical event.
But as Grace makes his way around this 7 000-plus metre course, he too will have one eye on the leaderboard looking for Tommy Fleetwood’s name. For the
ever-improving Englishman is no longer just making up the numbers.
– This article first appeared in the November issue of Cmopleat Golfer