During an endearing tournament pause in Abu Dhabi last week Dustin Johnson chuckled at Tommy Fleetwood’s expense. That Fleetwood has soared to the summit with an equipment miscellany – Nike fairway woods and irons no longer in production, Callaway wedges, a TaylorMade driver plus Odyssey putter – breaks from convention in this most commercial of times. Johnson pointed out the anomaly. The undertone was of obvious compliment.
Fleetwood was to win, again, in Abu Dhabi, having taken the title last year to begin his run to the top of the European Tour order of merit. Johnson, the world No1, is far from alone in having attention drawn towards the 27-year-old’s rapid rise. Whether linked to the status of golf or the fact Fleetwood is a low-key individual, England is not nearly aware enough of this sporting superstar. Fleetwood tees off at the Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday ranked 12th in the world, only one place behind Rory McIlroy, who first encountered Fleetwood in Shanghai five years ago.
“At that point he hit everything right-to-left and playing with him the last couple years he’s definitely been able to switch his ball flight and hit it both ways,” McIlroy said. “That’s a huge asset to have out here, getting to different pin positions and being able to be comfortable off different tee shots. Being able to hit both ways is something he’s worked hard on and that’s helped him a lot.
“And I think he’s improved a lot as a putter as well. He’s gone with a claw grip for the last couple of years and just looking at the amount of putts he had on the back nine on Sunday he’s become a very good putter. I think those are two aspects of his game he has improved.”
The nine-hole stretch to which McIlroy referred comprised only 30 shots. “I thought Tommy’s performance on Sunday was major-like,” said Thomas Bjorn, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain. “To go and shoot 30 in those conditions when you have to? We can all go and shoot 30 when you’re lying 39th and you move to 14th. But he had to do that. He was trailing. He had to go out on that back nine and do that. He’s in a great place.”
Childhood connections have fuelled Fleetwood’s surge. He has been close friends with Ian Finnis, his caddie, since the pair were 10 years old. Fleetwood is working again with Alan Thompson, who started coaching the Southport player when he was 13. Fleetwood’s relationship with both key personnel is blissfully free from the robotics, or paralysis by analysis, which has stalled the careers of so many golfers. Plenty have scaled the mountain only to slide – Trevor Immelman, Danny Willett and Andy Sullivan spring to mind – but Fleetwood’s golf and attitude look readily sustainable.
Finnis smiles now when looking back to the approach from Fleetwood, then at a low ebb, in the summer of 2016. The choice was simple; back his instinct that things could turn around for Fleetwood or remain as a teaching professional at Formby Hall.
“We had a four-week trial and he missed four cuts,” Finnis said. “I was half expecting Tommy to say that was that but he said: ‘It isn’t your fault, I’m playing crap.’ He just improved week on week. He is still doing it. I don’t want to sound arrogant but that hasn’t shocked me at all.
“I caddied for him in the British Amateur Championship; he didn’t win that but probably should have done a couple of times. He was as good as anyone. Now it’s just the attitude he has, you feel like he can win anywhere. I think he could have won more last year. He still has so far to go. This feels more like the start than the end. Last year was a good year but even that could have been a lot better. If he gets any kind of putting going, he is going to take some beating.”
McIlroy cites psychology as key. “Tommy has all the technical ability in the world and a hundred people out here have the technical ability to win major championships,” the four-times major champion said. “But it’s about mentally where you’re at and how you hold yourself together in those situations.”
Tellingly Finnis cites how “comfortable” Fleetwood is when in the company of Johnson, McIlroy or Jordan Spieth. “He is playing with those guys for a reason,” Finnis said.
One quirk of recent history relates to the Desert Classic. The last two winners – Willett and Sergio García – have prevailed at the subsequent Masters. McIlroy and García shrugged off such a scenario as coincidental but Ernie Els took an alternative view. “This is definitely a drawer’s course,” he said. “My eye found back in the day that I could move it easily right to left and obviously Augusta is very similar.”
Further incentive, perhaps, for Fleetwood – not that he appears to need it.
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