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Fleetwood has shot at becoming hometown hero at Open

Tommy Fleetwood is showing good form, finishing fourth at the US Open before winning the French Open.
Tommy Fleetwood is showing good form, finishing fourth at the US Open before winning the French Open.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Tommy Fleetwood, born in Southport, brought up, educated and nurtured there as a golfer, enters his home Open at Royal Birkdale this week as one of the favourites.

At 26, his career has taken off like a rocket since the turn of the year. He leads the European Tour's Race to Dubai. He has won two prestigious events and challenged in several others, including the US Open, where he confirmed his ascent to world class.

He will be hard to mistake on the links of Birkdale. Fleetwood, with his long hair and apparently laid-back demeanour, is outside the mould.

Since his birth in January 1991 in the north-west of England, there have been four Opens at Birkdale. He was a baby for the first, being nursed in a modest two-bedroom detached house just 4km from the course.

When the 1998 Open came round, Fleetwood, aged seven, had taken up the game and his father, Pete, a paver and spreader of tarmac, was sure that Tommy, the younger of his two sons, could be a champion. When The Open returned to Birkdale in 2008, Tommy, aged 17, was still an amateur but could have qualified by winning The Amateur Championship.

He made it to the final at Turnberry, with Pete as his caddie.

"The night before, for the only time in my life, I didn't sleep," Pete said.

Tommy lost 3&2 over 36 holes.

READY TO WIN

Your game comes back before your confidence. I started hitting it a bit better but it took time for me to trust myself. By the start of this year, it was time for me to win.

TOMMY FLEETWOOD , world No. 14 golfer, on putting his worst days behind him.

Now, Fleetwood is ready not just to play The Open in his home town, but perhaps to be the first golfer from the English working class to conquer the world of golf since Tony Jacklin, whose father was a lorry driver.

These days, he is accompanied by his fiancee and manager Clare Craig, a fair bit older than him, single and with two children, now aged nine and 10.

He had tried for a year or so to get closer, but she had not taken it seriously. Then it happened, and now she is in love, and pregnant with her third boy, Fleetwood's first, due in October. Her admiration for Fleetwood, personally ambitious but committed to fatherhood, and funny, seems boundless.

He is indeed great company, but it also became apparent, because he is a modest individual, that he has complete faith in his ability as a golfer.

That faith has been properly tested in prolonged loss of form, a slump. One has to go back to May last year to appreciate the depth of it.

"I had done well, won on Tour, but from The Open of 2015, I lost it," he said. "I went to the PGA Championship at Wentworth in 2016 and was so bad I was afraid I would top it off the first tee.

"A good mate of mine, Ian Finnis, had come down to watch. I told him I might not even play. Well I did, and Ian said it was the worst he'd ever seen me."

It was during that period of missed cuts and missing income that he built the foundations of his present prosperity.

He hired Finnis as his caddie; he went back to his old swing coach, Alan Thompson; he worked with Tom Young, a psychologist, and Kevin Duffy, a strength and conditioning coach; he sought out one of the game's foremost putting experts, Phil Kenyon.

With Craig as manager-boss, Fleetwood had built his core team.

"They were all people I could trust," he said.

The improvement in his game from last summer was gradual.

"Your game comes back before your confidence," he said.

"I started hitting it a bit better but it took time for me to trust myself. By the start of this year, it was time for me to win."

He did it in Abu Dhabi, with a birdie on the final hole to defeat Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1, by a stroke.

Fleetwood had climbed aboard the magic carpet. He surged up the world rankings with a string of high finishes and in June found himself leading the US Open after two rounds.

He did not play well enough to win, but he enjoyed the experience. He finished fourth. Two weeks later, he won the French Open and more than €1 million (S$1.58 million).

Can he win this week in his home town? It would be a fairytale. But he is now among the elite for sure, ready for the game's greatest honours and rewards.

But will he change?

"I don't think he will," said Pete, who is still living in Southport, proud of his working-class roots. "He'll get a belt if he does."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Fleetwood has shot at becoming hometown hero at Open'. Print Edition | Subscribe