02 Nov 2017

Leader of the pack: Tommy Fleetwood’s epic rise in 2017

Tommy Fleetwood has had a breakthrough year in 2017 with victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and the HNA Open de France and he holds all the aces as he heads towards the Race to Dubai finale at the DP World Tour Championship on the Earth course at Jumeirah Golf Estates. TODD STASZKO talks to the likeable Englishman about becoming a father, leading the Race to Dubai, his dramatic turnaround after a confidence-hit 2016 and his high hopes for the future.

“IT definitely changes things,” smiles Tommy Fleetwood, reflecting on the birth of his son, Frankie, in late September.

Becoming a parent usually does change everything, but Fleetwood will not let it get in the way of his continued success. Winning the Race to Dubai to be the best player on the European Tour throughout the season would put him in the exalted company of the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Sir Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson – a veritable Who’s Who of golf.

He’s certainly going to pull out all the stops to get it done.

“We’ve had better sleeps recently,” he says wryly, after a few days at home with fiancé Clare and Frankie, following his sixth place finish at the Italian Open last month.

“I was a little bit worried about how I might play coming into the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship because I’d had a lot of time off in the run-up to the birth. During the week of Frankie’s arrival we were pretty much in the hospital the whole time. It felt like I’d had a year off after that!

“But I was pleasantly surprised in Scotland and then in Italy. After a poor first round it came good following a really long practice session. You have to keep your expectations at bay a little bit and stay level-headed. Looking back, they were good weeks, considering what had gone on before it.”

Fleetwood has led the Race to Dubai since March when a final round 66 propelled him into second place behind Dustin Johnson at the WGC-Mexico Championship, just a couple of months after Fleetwood had won by one stroke ahead of Johnson in Abu Dhabi.

His blistering start to 2017 came after some huge changes he made last year which came about after a period of poor play. He went back to his old coach, put one of his oldest friends on the bag and got seriously into meditation.

“Everything progressed after a two-month period when I went back to ‘Thommo’ (Alan Thompson), in May, and then in June Ian Finnis came on the bag,” he says. “We moved into a new house in September and then I started playing better golf.”

What about the meditation? 

“Yeah, the meditation is something I first tried when I was younger but recently some apps have come out that guide you through it, which is great. Some people can fall into thinking that they’re no good at it because they can’t switch off straight away.

“They don’t seem to get into what they think meditation should be, so they are often put off by it. But the apps have been very useful to me and moving into the new house, in a really quiet and calming environment in the countryside has gone hand in hand with it.

“It’s not really golf-related meditation – like picturing golf shots or visualising how you want to play a particular hole. It’s more life related. It’s meditation on how to get to a better place and be in a better frame of mind. I enjoy it a lot.”

The meditation has certainly helped Fleetwood stay in the present and be totally focussed, but what effect did moving back under Thompson’s watchful eye have?

“There are a number of things that go into coaching,” says Fleetwood. “For a start, Thommo has known me and my swing since I was 12 or 13 years old,” he says, “and both are just as important as each other.

“Knowing the person and understanding the tendencies in their golf swing is all-important. What you’re going to be fighting against, no matter how much you try and change a swing or how much better you get, is tough. He has a model for a golf swing that works really well for me. I understand it and I understand the way he teaches it.

“Throughout the practise sessions our lines of communication are good, and that’s not something that everybody always gets right. It’s not a simple process to put across the actual feeling of what needs to be happening in the golf swing. Thommo and I have a very good chemistry when we’re working together and we certainly get the most out of it.”

What’s the Caddie connection?

Asked about his caddie, Ian, with whom he made a comical botched high-five after draining a huge putt to clinch second place in Mexico, he explained: “I’ve known Ian for about 17 years,” says Fleetwood. “He worked at Formby Hall Golf Club when I was a junior there. Being a regular at a golf club means a few of you will always hang out together and play golf together. Ian caddied for me at a few amateur events and again when I was on the Challenge Tour in my first year as a professional. We always said that if the opportunity were to arise, we’d give it a shot. The chance came up and we stuck to it.”

Fleetwood’s rise through the English Golf Union ranks to Walker Cup player (2009), European Challenge Tour winner (2011) and European Tour winner (2013) almost seemed to be the copybook route to the top.

Challenge Tour breeds success

Fleetwood is adamant that the Challenge Tour is the ideal springboard to success. “I think It’s the best thing you can do,” he says, “it’s the best way to move up the ladder. It’s such a competitive tour because you’ve got both worlds competing. There are guys who have just turned pro and are young and really hungry, like I was. Then you’ve got guys who could have just lost their playing card and are desperate to get back on the European Tour.

“So, you have both ends of the spectrum trying to get into the top 15 spots to qualify for the European Tour. It’s tough. I was lucky that I managed to make it in my first year on the Challenge Tour.

“You don’t want to be on it too long because it will just get harder and harder. Personally, I believe it’s the best way of gaining your card and for preparing yourself for European Tour golf.”

Fleetwood won the Kazakhstan Open in 2011, which came with the richest prize money on the Challenge Tour that year and it helped him become the youngest player to top the Challenge Tour rankings at the age of 20.

Flying high at Gleneagles

He found his feet on the European Tour in 2012, finishing 109th in the Race to Dubai to narrowly retain his card. But a first win was just around the corner and in August 2013 he clinched the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles with a play-off victory over Stephen Gallacher and Ricardo Gonzalez.

In 2014 he was runner-up three times on Tour as he finished 19th on the Race to Dubai and he consolidated his status with a 24th place finish in 2015 with four top tens.

DP World Tour Championship

The following year his confidence dipped but he found it again towards the end of the year and finished the season on a positive note with a ninth place finish at the DP World Tour Championship.

“Last year, I had a great chance of winning it with nine holes to play but clearly I wasn’t ready,” he reflects. “It was at the point when I’d got my game back, but my confidence was still being rebuilt as I hadn’t really been in contention often enough.

“I’ve had a couple of poor weeks at Jumeirah Golf Estates and a couple of decent ones but the Earth course suits me. I feel comfortable around there and it always helps that I’ve played it a few times now – or at least it should do.

“I’m looking forward to playing. It’s always a lovely week being here in Dubai, but as the last event of the year there’ll be a lot of pressure because there’s so much to play for.

“It’s a great tournament to end the season and the big name winners of both the tournament and the Race to Dubai itself speak for themselves. It’s always a huge occasion and I think it’s the perfect climax to the year. When you start each campaign, getting into the top 60 to play the event is a goal that everyone aims for.

“The 18th is a brilliant finishing hole as well. “You’re almost guaranteed a bit of drama on that last hole – so it fits well.”

Abu Dhabi kick start

With the 2016 season over and Fleetwood finding his form in Dubai, he hit the ground running two months later at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, clinching a one-stroke win. It certainly came as a pleasant surprise.

“That was a funny one because I always felt like I played quite well in Abu Dhabi and when I had missed the cut it was always by just one shot,” smiles Fleetwood.

“It’s always that first event of the year and I think I just didn’t have a lot of confidence around the course. But this year, turning up with no expectations and then playing well, just worked in my favour.

“I hooked the second shot of my first hole of the tournament into a bush and made bogey on a par-5, and ended up winning.

“It was a bad start but when I got down to the back nine on Sunday, with about five or six holes to play, I actually expected to win. The switch around was pretty quick.”

New balls please!

Another quick switch that took place in Abu Dhabi was a change of golf ball, which came about purely by chance.

“That was a stroke of luck really,” explains Fleetwood. “I happened to try a Titleist ProV1x for a practise round, and I really liked it. I played the week with it and won with it.”

With Nike exiting the golf equipment market Fleetwood knows he’ll have to change clubs soon, but he’s happy with the ProV1x and how that has performed for him in 2017.

“The ball is the main one,” he says. “You ask any player to do a blind test on the green and they would all be able to tell the difference between each ball. When courses are as tough as they are and the margins for error are so slight, the ball is imperative to success. Being able to change that quickly was great. I was lucky because the ProV1x was very similar to the Nike ball I was using – maybe a couple of yards longer into the wind. It’s one less thing to worry about.”

Major foothold and Ryder Cup boost

From Abu Dhabi, Fleetwood quickly became one of the success stories of the year. His performance in Mexico in March brought him worldwide attention. He followed that by getting into contention at the US Open at Erin Hills in June, finishing fourth. His one-stroke victory in the Rolex Series HNA Open de France in July solidified his status at the top of the Race to Dubai ranking and he’s determined to keep progressing steadily, taking things one step at a time. Next year being a Ryder Cup year – at the venue where he won this year’s Open de France – isn’t lost on him.

Ryder Cup goal

“I’d be lying if I said getting into The Ryder Cup side isn’t a goal,” he says. “But I’ve set goals before when I really wanted something and then not played well, so it can be frustrating. I’ve got plenty going on as it is without worrying about The Ryder Cup but it will certainly be one of my biggest goals of the year. I’m just going to keep playing the best golf I can, week in week out, and at the end of it, hopefully, I’ll be in that team.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but it’s got to be a dream goal because it’s one of the biggest sporting events in the world and we have the chance to play in it every two years.”

Challenge of the PGA Tour

Asked about testing himself more regularly on the PGA Tour against the likes of young American Major Champions in Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, Fleetwood replied: “The plan is to add more US PGA Tour events into my schedule,” he admits.

“This year was my first opportunity to play a few events in the USA and I enjoyed it. It’s a different style of golf, but there’s no denying that a lot of the best players in the world play over there.

“Having the opportunity to play in the States, whether it goes well or badly, it can only improve my game. But three of the four Majors and two of the four WGCs are in America, with another in Mexico, so the more chances you get to play there the better it is in terms of preparing for the big events.”

Focus to win the Race to Dubai

For now, the focus for Fleetwood is on ending the season strongly and winning the Race to Dubai. He concludes. “With the position I’m in I’ve got to give myself the best possible chance of winning the Race to Dubai so I’m playing the WGC-HSBC Champions, Turkish Airlines Open, the NedBank Challenge and then the DP World Tour Championship. It’s a nice long stretch of big events and we’ll see what I can do.” n

Share this article
Swing Sequence

Wyndham Clark Swing Sequence

By Jonathan Craddock, PGA Professional, Pete Cowen Academy One of the...

Xander Schauffele swing sequence

By Jonathan Craddock, PGA Professional, Pete Cowen Academy Xander Schauffele has...

Related articles

Upbeat McIlroy Ready for US Open After Marital Reconciliation

Rory McIlroy’s upbeat mindset ahead of this week’s US Open at...

U.S. Open Preview – Who will claim the year’s third Major?

The third Major of men’s schedule gets underway this month with...

Surviving Summer – How Courses Cope With The Heat

Words: Will Kent Photography: Provided by Stuart & Getty Images The...

Kiaan Keeps On Winning – UAE’s Latest Jnr Star

Photography & words by Will Kent Eight-year-old Kiaan Maharaj has become...

Gaudet rings the changes for women’s golf

Elisa Gaudet, Founder of Women’s Golf Day, talks exclusively to Rick...

Masters Green Jacket Thief Charged

A former warehouse assistant at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia...