After Tommy Fleetwood rolled in a four-footer for birdie on the par-5 18th to get to 17-under for the tournament, he took a two-shot lead and essentially clinched the win. But he still had to wait for three more players to finish, as he was in the penultimate group in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship that featured a star-studded field.
Only Pablo Larrazábal had a chance of catching Fleetwood to force a playoff, but he needed an eagle. Larrazábal missed the green short left and needed a small miracle to pitch in to match Fleetwood at 17-under. His attempt fell short, but even before that, it felt like the champion had been already crowned — which was when Fleetwood made his putt for birdie.
Actually, I take that back. The moment came before that. Fleetwood hit his drive left on the 18th hole near the cart path, which would have interfered with his stance. He was allowed to take relief. He dropped, but his stance would have still been on the path. Same deal when he dropped the second time. After that, he was allowed to place the ball.
Fleetwood was fortunate to end up with a great lie with his ball sitting up on a nice little tuft of grass, like a tee. To be clear, he wasn’t breaking any rules and don’t even utter that c-word. Knowing the Rules of Golf can play to your advantage, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
“There were two bits of grass, a nice bit and a bad bit, and I didn’t really want to go to the bad bit,” Fleetwood explained. “There’s a line that I had to drop it over to make it a legal drop, basically. I can’t drop it when I’m still stood on the path.
“It just took me a few goes because I was trying to get it right on the edge of it. But yeah, I did actually get a really good drop in the end. It settled nicely and I was never going to not take the shot on.”
NO LAYING UP. But it really was a perfect lie — it’s like getting that break when it’s your time to win. Fleetwood, who is still playing with now defunct Nike clubs, piped his 3-wood about 270 yards onto the green. That sound when the club face strikes the ball perfectly… it’s a beautiful one. It was pure from the get-go. He waited and watched intently as the ball hung in the air for what seemed like forever (well, it was quite a long ways), it found the front of the green. The swing was aggressive, confident and simply pure all the way. He played fearlessly and like a champion that deserved to win his second title on the European Tour.
Fleetwood started slow while his playing partners did just the opposite, but he stayed patient and managed to get hot on the back nine, firing a five-under 31 in tough, windy conditions.
“I knew Kiradech (Apibarnrat) was leading and I think I got level with him on 11,” said Fleetwood, laughing. “He kept holing really good putts, though, which was driving me mad, because he won’t miss.
“(Kiradech and Martin Kaymer) started off very fast and I knew those two were the ones that were leading. It helps when you’re playing with the leaders, because you know where you have to be.”
Then he turned the momentum in his favor with a chip-in on the 10th to kick off the back nine.
“I was a bit behind and I had to just keep going and keep playing my own game, and the chip-in on 10, it’s an obvious turning point in the day, or it’s an obvious, massive momentum-builder. But when you do that, it’s so easy to get overexcited, because I knew I had got within one or whatever.
“I had a three-shot swing with Martin on that hole. But standing on the 11th tee, you could completely cock it up after that because you’re so excited. It was more important to me to play the next two holes well. I could easily go bogey, bogey then and it was pointless chipping in, kind of thing.”
Kaymer had fallen off, but Kiradech managed to keep it together, but Fleetwood was simply just trying to wear him down. The two traded shots and stayed level with each other until the last four holes or so when it was clear Kiradech was starting to tire and hitting errant shots. And he just looked spent and defeated and once that happens, the ball was in Fleetwood’s court.
It had been a while since Fleetwood’s first victory, which was the 2013 Johnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, which was three years, 150 days ago. He was supposed to beim. “the next big thing,” with multiple victories and a massive star already, but hey, it doesn’t always work out like that, obviously. But things were looking up over the last six months. And in his last two starts, he placed tied for third in the UBS Hong Kong Open and tied for ninth at the DP World Tour Championship.
“I had a really rough time from sort of July 2015 to July 2016, I was really struggling with my game,” Fleetwood 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 I was a bit silly and just got going the wrong way. I couldn’t do the things that I was trying to do.
“From there, the strengths of my game like my driving went completely; I was really struggling off the tee. I couldn’t get it off the tee and I just had way too many bad shots. It was killing my golf game off, really. When your strengths have gone, that’s when it becomes hardest.”
I hear that. Sometimes you just gotta go back to the basics — to the place that got you where you were in the first place. We’ve seen this happen before. It’s part of the process. So he reverted to what was familiar. He went back to his old swing coach that he had starting when he was 13. He also parted ways with his old caddie and hired one of best mates of 15 years Ian Finnis, who looped for Fleetwood a bit when he was an amateur and when he first turned pro.
“We had always said, when the time come up again, when the opportunity arose, we would give it a go,” said Fleetwood. “To be fair, there’s not a lot of people that thought it would work.
“We started in July at Germany, BMW. Then France, Scotland and The Open, and still my game was nowhere near any good and I was struggling. We stuck at it and we knew it would come good. He’s been a massively positive influence, really. I can’t give him enough credit for how good he’s been for me.
“Him, put together with Alan, those two, change; it wasn’t like starting again from scratch. But it was, these are the things I kind of need to do. I’m in a bad place with my game, not enjoying it and I’m hitting it terrible; what are we going to do about it.
“It didn’t come all at once. It happened quicker than we thought it would. I started working with Alan in May and we still thought, you know, it’s going to take a year, at least, to sort of get to somewhere where I thought I would be now.”
I hear that. But it’s when you least expect it, sometimes good things start happening or you just snap out of a funk because of a random experience or trigger.
Fleetwood was clearly the crowd favorite, which consisted mostly of British ex-pats or tourists. He was also the players’ favorite, for sure. The 26-year-old Englishman is one of the most popular and well-liked guys on the European Tour. It’s evident in the photo above, where Kaymer, who was also in contention, is embracing Fleetwood and showing genuine joy for his friend and fellow competitor on the 18th green. If you didn’t know better, you may have thought the duo had just won a four-ball match in the Ryder Cup.
I’ve always known Fleetwood was well-liked by his peers and he seemed friendly and approachable, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to speak with him or even really hear him speak before his post-victory press conference. It didn’t take long to see why Fleetwood was so popular. He’s genuine, friendly, down-to-earth and just seems like a guy who anyone would like to be around. He just radiates positive energy and every time I’ve seen him, he’s smiling.
In fact, Fleetwood makes “little goals” with his caddie and longtime friend Ian Finnis for the week at every tournament, and one of them in Abu Dhabi was to smile. During the third round, Fleetwood was seen chatting and interacting with a bunch of junior golfers, which might be weird in America or might not depending on the player, but in Europe, it’s very different.
“If somebody is there, I’m going to chat to them,” said Fleetwood, smiling. “I wasn’t going to ignore a little kid, and he was quite funny, as well. I just wanted to talk to him down the hole.
“I felt good and I felt kind of relaxed. I felt fine all week, really. Coming down the stretch, your heart rate starts getting up but before that — and I still enjoyed it, really. The more you enjoy it and the more you smile, and I have little goals every week, really.
“Me and Ian make little goals, and one of them this week was to smile. So it worked. I’m going to put it in next week’s now. But yeah, the more you style and the more you have a good time, the better things are going to be. It’s obvious, but it’s hard to do when things aren’t going great.”
Well, I don’t think Fleetwood will have a problem smiling next week. He’s usually smiling, anyway, but he certainly will be in great spirits after this long wait for his second victory.
Only in Europe…or the Middle East
On the 18th tee, Kiradech, whom I know pretty well because he had to put up with
me a lot when I worked for Fox Sports Asia in 2014 and he’s just a solid dude, saw me and walked over to chat. It was the 72nd hole of a tournament. He was in contention. He only trailed Fleetwood by a shot.
Kiradech asked me how my week was and I told him it was so great that I was staying another two weeks. He asked about my schedule. I asked about his schedule. He asked which PGA Tour event I was covering next. I said I wasn’t sure yet. He told me that he’s playing four in a row. From Abu Dhabi, he’s playing next week in Qatar, then coming back to play in Dubai before heading to Malaysia. I was like, uh, that’s a lot, wow, sounds exhausting, why are you playing so much? He said he has a deal with Malaysia, so he’s committed already (as in, it’s a sponsor thing).
I asked if he wanted to play that many in a row and he shrugged and said not really, but he had some gaps in his schedule later in the year. He hopes he gets an invitation to the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he’s finished in the top-5 the past two years in a row. I reassured him that he had nothing to worry about then. Blah, blah.
At the same time, I was sort of like, uh, dude, you’re one back on the 72nd hole. I know you probably just want to get your mind off the tourney and chat with someone, but what are you doing?? He simply was defeated already at that point. Hate to say it, but that’s what I read from his body language. But he’s also a good dude and known me for a while.
Still. I was like, THIS IS NOT NORMAL. Again, only on the European Tour! I guess sometimes players in America will chitchat, like even Rory McIlroy, but not to this extent. And there’s obviously the unspoken rule that you don’t ever initiate conversation with a player during a tournament round. You only speak or exist if spoken to first. Otherwise, we’re invisible and try to blend in and stay out of the way. I mean, duh.
Nike Golf Club Plug
Though Nike Golf announced at the end of 2016 that the company would no longer manufacture golf clubs, Tommy Fleetwood is still a walking endorsement for the brand. He is still playing with Nike clubs. He can’t imagine ever taking his 5-wood out of his bag and he loves his driver, which is his greatest strength. He likes what’s in his bag, so why change for the sake of changing? I get it. I hear that. In other words, he’s not a big tinkerer.
“Well, they are working all right,” said Fleetwood, laughing, when asked about why he was still playing with Nike clubs as most others have switched to other manufacturers. “I really like the equipment, and I’ve used Nike for a very long time.
“I’ve been with Nike since I was 13, Nike clubs and everything. This week was the first time I had ever used a ball in a tournament that wasn’t a Nike ball. I’ve made little switches but the irons I’ve used for a very long time.
“Clubs that I have tested, there’s clubs that I would never change. My 5-wood is my favorite club in the bag. I could never change that. And the driver, I’ve just not found anything that is better yet. Time will come eventually. I’m sure I’ll have to.
“But you know, at the moment, it’s the best equipment for me, and it was when Nike were 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. Like I say, the strongest part of my game is my driving. So it’s hard to change when it is a strength, just for the sake of changing because you have the option. But I’ve just not found anything better yet.”
Makes sense. Yep, I also get why he’s so well-liked by his peers.