Fleet­wood comes home

Lo­cal lad takes a tilt at Royal Birk­dale

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - James Cor­ri­gan GOLF COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Birk­dale re­vis­ited could be one of the most cel­e­brated dra­mas of this golf­ing pe­riod and the pro­tag­o­nist, him­self, has the grainy old snaps to prove it. By next Sun­day, Tommy Fleet­wood could have quite the scrap­book.

In sport, snip­pets can quickly take on leg­ends of their own, as Fleet­wood dis­cov­ered at last month’s US Open. In the hours af­ter his rous­ing fourth­place fin­ish at Erin Hills, he re­vealed that, yes, he did play Royal Birk­dale as a child, but only be­cause he and his fa­ther, Pete, used to sneak on the venue for the 146th Open Cham­pi­onship when the mem­bers were not look­ing. The poacher turned Claret Jug keeper was thus writ­ten.

Within 24 hours, the story’s legs had taken it all the way through the main gates at the ex­clu­sive links up the grand stair­way to the of­fice of the sec­re­tary/man­ager. With a tweet which showed that the club­houses of Great Bri­tain are not as dusty or as stuffy as they once were, Fleet­wood was ribbed by @Roy­alBirk­dale re­quest­ing “un­paid ret­ro­spec­tive green fees”.

A few miles away, Mrs Fleet­wood was root­ing through the fam­ily al­bums. It did not take not long for the proud mother to lo­cate the ev­i­dence.

“Af­ter I said about sneak­ing on to Birk­dale, my mum dug out the pho­tos,” Fleet­wood told The Daily Tele­graph. “There’s one I re­ally re­mem­ber, when I was six. I’m there in my best clothes with this slipover and mas­sive sticky-out ears. And in the back­ground you can see the white ‘Round­house’, the fa­mous home across the road from Birk­dale. So, there’s no doubt where it was taken! That pic­ture brings it all back. We al­ways went on late enough when the mem­bers were in the bar. Dad was far too clever for them to catch us.”

That was in 1997, the year be­fore Mark O’Meara was to win the Open there, with a cer­tain 22-year-old in third called Tiger Woods. A decade on and Padraig Har­ring­ton was deny­ing Ian Poul­ter and, de­spite all his friends be­ing in at­ten­dance, Fleet­wood stayed away in a sulk.

“I was 17 and had fin­ished run­ner-up in the pre­vi­ous month’s Am­a­teur Cham­pi­onship with only the win­ner qual­i­fy­ing for the Open,” he said. “I couldn’t watch, not even on the telly. I hated it be­ing there and me not.” Yes, his per­sonal play­ground was locked and not even the Fleet­woods could force the lock. In­stead, it took nine years of dis­man­tling the bar­ri­ers to his sport’s elite for Fleet­wood to stand on the brink of a rather won­der­ful tale. The long-haired clubber from Liver­pool (or near enough) is not mak­ing his com­pet­i­tive de­but at Birk­dale as some wide-eyed ro­man­tic, but ac­tu­ally as one of the favourites. This Open looks wide open. Rory McIl­roy is woe­fully out of form – miss­ing his sec­ond cut in two weeks at the Scot­tish Open on Fri­day – while world No1 Dustin John­son has failed to make it to the week­end in his last two ma­jors. De­fend­ing cham­pion Hen­rik Sten­son has slipped to sev­enth in the world rank­ings and Ja­son Day has two top10s all sea­son.

Of the big names, only Jor­dan Spi­eth and Ser­gio Gar­cia are op­er­at­ing any­where near their best and de­spite the Spa­niard’s Green Jacket glory in April, Fleet­wood leads the Euro­pean Tour’s or­der of merit.

No­body, nowhere, has played any bet­ter than Fleet­wood in re­cent months – a win in France fol­low­ing the US Open, as well as top 10s in Swe­den and Ire­land – and no English­man should be more con­fi­dent of end­ing his coun­try’s 25-year Open void. Yet just 12 months ago none of this seemed pos­si­ble. On a slide out­side the world’s top 150, it was not fairy tales on Fleet­wood’s mind but fi­nances.

“I was happy just to make cuts re­ally, be­cause I knew I was bring­ing money back,” he said. “I was just mov­ing into a new house and set­ting up with a fam­ily [with fi­ancee Clare and her two chil­dren]. It was a bit nerve-rack­ing. Silly things go through your head, ‘will I keep my card, will it all un­ravel?’ You see that spi­ral hap­pen­ing all the time and you think ‘is that go­ing to be it?’. It doesn’t take much to lose your con­fi­dence and lose your way in this game. I was lucky to get it back pretty quick.” Fleet­wood be­lieves he owes it to Clare, who is also his man­ager and with whom he

is ex­pect­ing his first child in Oc­to­ber, and two fig­ures from his youth, coach Alan Thomp­son and best friend Ian Fin­nis.

“It was last May when I left Pete [Cowen] to go back to Thommo,” Fleet­wood said. “It was a big de­ci­sion as Pete is ob­vi­ously one of the best in the world, if not the best. But my body just wouldn’t al­low me to swing the way he wanted and when you’re strug­gling like that it’s not nice for ei­ther of you. I was strug­gling, didn’t know what to do and dad said that only Thommo knew my swing bet­ter than him. He didn’t have to take me back – af­ter all, I’d left him a few times and gone back since first be­ing taught by him as a young tee. Yet, thank­fully, he did.”

And for­tu­nately, his clos­est con­fi­dant said yes, as well. When Fleet­wood em­ployed Fin­nis, an as­sis­tant pro at Formby Golf Club, there was many a raised eye­brow in the cad­die lounge.

“I could un­der­stand that,” Fleet­wood said. “It’s a tough trade and the cad­dies are rightly proud of their pro­fes­sion. But it was ac­tu­ally Ian tak­ing a chance on me. He had a one-year-old daugh­ter and a steady job and I missed four out of the first five cuts to­gether. Yet he relaxed me in the sense I knew we were to­gether. We were a team and the re­spon­si­bil­ity, in a way, was shared. You’re best mates and you’re there for each other, whether it’s good or bad. True, there wasn’t much laugh­ing go­ing on when we were c---, but we stayed tight, worked hard at it and there’s quite a bit now.”

Isn’t there just. Fleet­wood has cleared more than £3mil­lion in the first six months of this year and Fin­nis’s per­cent­age would be some­where near £300,000. The first prize at Birk­dale is £1.4mil­lion. Of course, it is not about the cash but the cache. And ful­fill­ing the dream of that South­port kid with the sticky-out ears.

Mini golfer: Tommy Fleet­wood on the green at Royal Birk­dale as a boy, when he would sneak on the course with his fa­ther

Ma­jor player: Fleet­wood watches a putt go close at last month’s US Open

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