Take professional golfers out of their comfort zones and there’s no doubt that some will react differently to others – it’s what separates the elite players from the rest. Tommy Fleetwood has been one of Europe’s standout golfers over recent years but even he admits that the strange surroundings he faced when golf returned to action after the enforced lockdown were tough to take.
The likeable Englishman has recently started to find his form again, and he hopes his play-off runner-up place at the ASI Scottish Open and a top-15 finish at the BMW PGA Championship can propel him to a strong end to the year. “Obviously, there have been necessary changes that have been out of our control,” says Fleetwood. “It’s easy to say ‘yeah, the schedule is funky and so much has changed,’ but when you’ve played without spectators for a while now, we can take it for granted that we’re playing full time again.
“Back in March when The Players was cancelled at Sawgrass and golf was totally shutdown, I thought ‘we’re done, we’re going to be in lockdown for a year or more.’ “There are so many things I’ve missed. For a start, the players have missed not having their coaches with them every week. Many golf fans might look at that and say, ‘you’re professional golfers, you should be able to figure things out on your own.’ But the truth is, you can’t easily get used to not having your coach around. Everybody needs a bit of guidance now and again. I’ve definitely missed that.” Fleetwood struggled to hit top gear when he returned to action on the PGA Tour in August, cracking the top 30 just once in four starts at the US PGA Championship.
He missed the cut at the US Open in September – an event which had previously produced two top fives for him – but he returned to Europe and recaptured his form in Scotland, narrowly losing out to Aaron Rai in a play-off at The Renaissance Club. “Yeah, it’s a totally different atmosphere without the fans and being in a bubble. But at the same time, we’re turning up week-in, week-out with a chance to play golf and win tournaments and win Majors. That’s the only way you should look at it,” he said. “Sure, things are a bit weird, but it still shouldn’t prevent you from having a great season. “There are plenty of top-class events to play. I had a long spell in America, away from home, and during that time I learned a lot from things that had been taken away– and I’ll take those lessons with me for as long as I’m playing professional golf – knowing what I missed at certain times and what I did or didn’t mind about it.”
Momentum is one thing Fleetwood craves, which is why he’s playing more than he usually would as he looks to peak for The Masters. “I just want to keep playing. Part of the reason why I’m playing so much at the moment is because I’ve been working hard and I feel like I’m progressing in the right direction. I just want to get out there on the golf course. “I believe that golf can change at any given week, and, hopefully, my time will come again – and it could be any week now. Every week in golf, is a blank canvas. Everybody has the same opportunity, and I always feel that my finest golf is clearly good enough for me to be up there or thereabouts at the end of the week.”
Fleetwood has played in three editions of The Masters with a share of 17th in 2018 his best return to date and he feels the course sets up well for his game. “You really get a sense of the difference in how you feel from year one, to year two, to year three,” he said. “Year one is all so new but I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s overwhelming. “There’s so much to take in when it’s your first time out there. Year two, you’ve been there already, so you’re more comfortable with it and it just kind of progresses to the point where I’m not at the Freddie Couples stage or anything like that, but I’m getting a better understanding and feeling of the tournament and the course and what it involves.”
Further on down the line Fleetwood has one eye on the Race to Dubai. Currently in second place behind Patrick Reed, Fleetwood would love to add another season-long title to his CV. “It’s still my proudest achievement in golf, winning the Race to Dubai in 2017,” he said. “To play throughout the whole year and finish the highest in that ranking, I think is an amazing feat.” “I’ve competed in Dubai the last three years and I’ve always said it really is a privilege to get to that event with a chance of winning the Race to Dubai. I absolutely loved coming down the stretch in with a chance last year.”
Fleetwood fired a sublime final round 7-under 65 at last year’s DP World Tour Championship but it wasn’t enough to stop an inspired Jon Rahm, who clinched both the tournament and the Race to Dubai. “It didn’t quite happen for me,” said Fleetwood, who settled for second place behind Rahm on both leaderboards. “My record of first-third-second over the last three years is great. This year, I want to keep that spell going. It’s something that I’m very proud of, the consistency of being that high up, as it means I’ve played well in the right tournaments for the last few years. “So, yeah, I’d absolutely love that. There are some amazing names who have won it once and there are some amazing names who have won it multiple times – and I’d love to be one of them.”
Fleetwood is already one of the most popular and recognisable players in the game, but he wants to be remembered as one of the best of his generation and the only way to enhance his reputation is by winning more titles. He has finished runner-up in two Majors and forged an outstanding winning Ryder Cup partnership with Francesco Molinari in 2018, and he also has designs on next year’s rescheduled Olympics in Japan. “That is definitely a goal,” he says. “I would absolutely love to get there and compete for a medal – 100 percent. When we watched it last time, I think just the fact that golf is in the Olympics is such an amazing thing, and it’s inspiring to watch athletes from all over the world who have chased an Olympic medal for their entire career.
“I love the whole atmosphere that surrounds it and would love to wear the Team GB badge. I’ve definitely got that in mind and I would love to be one of the guys who represents our nations. I always look at that as something to keep me pressing forward, the chance of competing in the Olympics.” First things first, Fleetwood has a date at Augusta National, where he’s certain that the ‘no patrons’ element could work to his advantage. “When I tuned in to watch the golf on the first week back when they started playing in America, I was watching the players, and I thought, ‘well, yeah, there may be no fans, but everybody looks like they do when they are playing – what they are doing is just the same as it always was’,” says Fleetwood.
“They are going through the same routines and everybody looked really focused – and when it came to guys winning, it meant just the same.” Indeed, someone has to win the Green Jacket come Masters Sunday – whether there are spectators there to lap up the atmosphere and experience or not. That’s precisely what’s motivating Fleetwood as he tries to break his Major duck and take something away from what has been, in his words, a ‘funky kind of year.’