Bri­tish con­tender

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

He is the poster boy of the up­com­ing Bri­tish Open, his flow­ing hair and stub­bly face adorn­ing the ban­ners draped across lamp­posts on the ap­proaches to Royal Birk­dale. Tommy Fleet­wood has the looks of a rock star and the pop­u­lar­ity of one in this sea­side town in north­west Eng­land, es­pe­cially this week.

SOUTHPORT, Eng­land — He is the poster boy of the up­com­ing Bri­tish Open, his flow­ing hair and stub­bly face adorn­ing the ban­ners draped across lamp-posts on the ap­proaches to Royal Birk­dale.

Tommy Fleet­wood has the looks of a rock star and the pop­u­lar­ity of one in this sea­side town in north­west Eng­land, es­pe­cially this week.

Golf’s old­est ma­jor is back in Southport for the first time since 2008 and, in Fleet­wood, one of the sport’s ris­ing stars, the lo­cals have one of their own to cheer for.

“I’ll have the most sup­port I’ve ever had in my life, from peo­ple I’ve grown up with, friends, fam­ily, you name it,” Fleet­wood said on Mon­day. “It’s go­ing to be a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence, for sure.”

Grow­ing up, Fleet­wood, 26, lived in a house just round the cor­ner from Royal Birk­dale. The place al­ways held a mys­ti­cal qual­ity to a golf-lov­ing kid who dreamed of win­ning the Open Cham­pi­onship from the age of 5.

He’d play at the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pals — Southport, Formby Hall, and Southport & Ains­dale, where he’d sweep the paths — and would get on the Birk­dale only when ac­com­pa­ny­ing his father, Peter, on evening dog walks.

“I might have bunked on the odd time and hit the odd shot,” Fleet­wood re­called. “But that was about as far as it goes.”

The first Bri­tish Open he went to watch was at Royal Birk­dale in 1998. He re­mem­bers de­fend­ing cham­pion Justin Leonard be­ing on the front cover of the pro­gram, be­ing in awe of a 22-year-old Tiger Woods walk­ing past him, and fak­ing golfers’ sig­na­tures in his au­to­graph book be­cause he failed to get any him­self.

Nine­teen years on, it’s his sig­na­ture in de­mand.

Fleet­wood is at his high­est world rank­ing of No. 14, he’s cur­rently the No. 1 player on the Euro­pean Tour af­ter win­ning in Abu Dhabi and France this year, and he played in the fi­nal group on the Sun­day of a U.S. Open last month.

To a for­mer coach and men­tor, Fleet­wood is not just a sen­ti­men­tal pick this week but a log­i­cal one.

“He’s the player in form, he’s one of the best play­ers in the world, and he’s play­ing a course he knows,” Jim Payne told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “Some peo­ple talk about pres­sure he’ll be un­der but I don’t see that. I only think he can do well. It’s set up for him, re­ally.”

Payne re­calls Fleet­wood be­ing 10 or 11 when he met him for the first time, and young Tommy play­ing “like some­one who was three years older.”

“This might not sound right, but he was both­ered,” Payne said, paus­ing to find the cor­rect words. “If it didn’t work out, he wanted to do some­thing about it. Some peo­ple just ac­cept if it wasn’t good or it wasn’t a win, but he was al­ways striv­ing to get bet­ter.”

Fleet­wood was also age 11 — with a hand­i­cap of 11 and al­ready hit­ting the ball 230 yards — when he was voted as ju­nior sports per­son­al­ity of the year at a cer­e­mony in nearby Sefton. Peter Fleet­wood said at the time that the costs of his son’s early golf­ing ca­reer “will all come back the day Tommy wins the Open.”

How fit­ting if he achieved that at Birk­dale and be­came the first English­man to win an Open in Eng­land since Tony Jack­lin in 1969 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

“Re­cent re­sults have clearly put me in the eye and made peo­ple talk about me as a chance,” Fleet­wood said. “It’s nice to be spo­ken of in that light, to be hon­est. I find it very flat­ter­ing and, I mean, it doesn’t af­fect me in any way, apart from it’s very nice and makes me smile, re­ally.”

Fleet­wood is of­ten seen smil­ing these days. He says his home life is “as good as it’s ever been.” He is en­gaged to his man­ager, Clare, and they have a baby due in Oc­to­ber. And he is over an alarm­ing dip in form trig­gered when he tried to change his swing in 2015 to be­come a “world­class golfer.”

He re­turned to an­other of his old coaches, Alan Thomp­son, re-em­ployed his old cad­die, Ian Fin­nis, and set about climb­ing the rank­ings from a re­cent low of No. 188 in Septem­ber 2016.

Now he is that world-class golfer, and ready to add the claret jug to his grow­ing haul of tro­phies.

Fleet­wood

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