With Flowing Mane And Stellar Game Tommy Fleetwood Goes His Own Way
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | Look to the sky above the European Tour’s headquarters and you might notice a situations-vacant banner fluttering in the Surrey breeze: “Wanted. Another World Star. Golfing ability spoken for. Need only apply if you are European with an attractive, unusual personality and relish being in the spotlight.”
Rory McIlroy’s four major championships, appearances at the top of the world ranking and ability to play startling golf have deservedly given the Northern Irishman worldwide status and true recognition in the US. McIlroy though, without a major championship victory since 2014, seems currently to be generating more questions than answering them. The impeccably mannered Justin Rose, who alternates as world No 1, lives in the Bahamas and while a committed member of the European Tour, plays it only occasionally.
Who then is the next European to be booted and spurred for the world stage, a player capable of being as at home and popular at Shinnecock Hills or Augusta as Wentworth or Carnoustie? Martin Kaymer was once, briefly, until he discovered he didn’t like being world No 1. Francesco Molinari, the Open champion and winner of the 2018 Race to Dubai, has the playing credentials but looks less comfortable in the spotlight than he is on a course. Ditto Jon Rahm, the gifted Spaniard.
Step forward Tommy Fleetwood, whose golfing skills are unquestioned as the current world No 14 (he has been up to ninth), a man who finished second and third in the past two US Opens, won the Race to Dubai in 2017 and finished third in 2018. Just as important, Fleetwood was a hero in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory against the US in Paris last autumn, playing and behaving as if to the manor born even though it was his debut.
“He is definitely a fan favourite,” Ian Poulter, a teammate of Fleetwood’s in France, said. “He’s got the long hair. The likeable smile. He speaks well. He does all the right things.”
If anyone appears destined for the world stage, it is Fleetwood. “Tommy is on a cloud of hysteria at the moment,” Mike Walker, the coach, said. “The Ryder Cup has catapulted him further into the stratosphere.”
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Fleetwood has age on his side. He turns 28 today. Of the world’s top 15, only Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele and Rahm are younger. Fleetwood is also younger than Rose by 11 years, than Molinari, his Ryder Cup partner, by six years, and has McIlroy by two years. Many happy returns of the day, Tommy. Have a happy birthday.
I have written so often I am guilty of plagiarising myself that Fleetwood’s ascetic-looking face and startling blue eyes surrounded by outcrops of long hair make him look as though he is auditioning for the lead part in next year’s Passion Play at Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany. But it’s true. Ask the referee John Paramor. “When I think of Tommy I think of Jesus because of his looks,” Paramor said, adding, “He’s a gentleman. Every time you speak to him he is polite, calm. Never says anything too taxing. If they were all like Tommy I’d have fewer problems.”
He doesn’t grumble audibly or throw tantrums. As he goes about his business he does not resemble a man trying to crack a code or pick a lock. In fact, he smiles a lot.
Pete Cowen, the coach, once said of Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion: “He looks comfortable in uncomfortable situations.” The same might apply to Fleetwood. He always looks the same, whether passing through spectators on his way to the first tee, walking from a green to the next tee, or sitting quietly among a group of other players.
On a golf course Tiger Woods stares into the distance when he walks, rarely engaging with spectators. Dustin Johnson lopes, often swinging a club, looking around mostly over the heads of spectators. Fleetwood moves quietly, acknowledging praise with a half-smile or a slight wave, his head slightly bowed. He looks humble. Why? Because he is.
“Tommy is a lovely lad,” Poulter said. “He is a very likeable guy. He is someone who swings it nicely. From that perspective of being a nice guy, someone you know extremely well, friend, he is great to play golf with. You have lots in common with him. It always nice to play golf with someone like that.”
In a game where a frown is the default facial expression of many, Fleetwood looks calm and content. He doesn’t grumble audibly or throw tantrums. As he goes about his business he does not resemble a man trying to crack a code or pick a lock. In fact, he smiles a lot.
“He looks to me like a guy who has not fallen out of love with the game,” Walker said. “He is almost like a kid. You see so many players who look as though they have forgotten why they took up golf in the first place. He is unaffected by hysteria. He is humble. He has a lot of humility for someone as good as he is. What he is, is a good Southport lad.”
That is undoubtedly part of Fleetwood’s appeal. Just as the English, the British think of him, rightly, as “one of us,” those from Lancashire as it was, or Merseyside as it is now known, think of him as being as much a part of their county as the hotpot for which Lancashire is famous. Born in Southport, not far from the Hillside Golf Course where he will host the British Masters tournament in May, he has never lived farther away than he does now, an hour’s drive.
“I love where I’m from,” Fleetwood said. “I just do. Love everything about it. I could live anywhere. (The) kids could probably live anywhere but we are very settled. Never say never because you don’t know what the future holds but we’re definitely not moving for now. When we travel so much and you talk about being in uncomfortable situations whether it’s trying to make a cut or trying to win a major, home is like your little sanctuary.”
Not living in the London area to be close to Heathrow Airport marks Fleetwood out from many of his peers. So does his hair, which was fashionably short 10 years ago when he was of an age when young men have long hair and is long now when many of his peers are nearly bald by design. Look at McIlroy then and now. Look at Poulter. Asked about it, Fleetwood shrugged. No explanation necessary. He has long hair, a short follow-through, hates being stationary in his car in traffic, and is as popular as any player on the European Tour. That’s Tommy Fleetwood.
And as a golfer? “He is a brilliant driver of the ball,” Stephen Gallacher, the 2014 Ryder Cup player, said. “That is underrated because he has turned into a fantastic putter but I think his driving is the thing that makes him putt well because he hits a lot of fairways and he’s long. You know when you play the real proper golf courses you have to drive it good. He has turned into a fantastic putter but I think it’s his driving that impresses me a lot.”
Lee Westwood: “Tommy is aggressive, fearless, a great ballstriker. He can play different kinds of shots. He can bring the ball down when he wants to. He can hit it high when he wants to. He has a good short game. He strokes the ball well. He can shake off the disappointment of a bogey quickly. He doesn’t beat himself up. He looks like he knows that at the end of the day it’s just a game. It looks like he is playing his hobby out there.”
Westwood was asked whether Fleetwood could get to the next level. “There is no next level for him,” Westwood said. “He is at it now. He is capable of winning any tournament in the world. There is no next level from there. You just have to do it more often. The sky’s the limit for Tommy.”
Fleetwood blushed on hearing those words of praise. “That’s very kind of Lee, very nice. I am trying my best. Everything we do is to get better. It gets harder because you are surrounded by top players who are all equally as talented trying to do the same thing and all working as hard. Being able to get better gets harder and harder. That’s what I do, work every day and try. I might have reached my pinnacle. If so, so be it. It’s not the end of the world.”
That is Tommy Fleetwood, known to some as Fleetwood Mac, as personable, gifted and grounded a player as there is on the European Tour at the moment.
England’s Tommy Fleetwood during the third round of the 2018 British Masters. Photo: Andrew Boyers, Action Images via Reuters
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