Fleetwood comes home
Local lad takes a tilt at Royal Birkdale
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