Not many can say they've played in an Open Championship in their hometown. Tommy Fleetwood discusses an emotional week at Royal Birkdale in 2017

Not many players can say they’ve played an Open in their hometown. Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell added to the already short list in 2019, but it’s unlikely anyone will ever beat Tommy Fleetwood’s record of teeing up for the Claret Jug just three miles from his place of birth.    

The stories of how Fleetwood and his dad, Pete, would sneak on to Royal Birkdale to play a few holes, or even jump the fences when the Open was there in 1997, are well documented. But in 2017 the dream became a reality for the Southport star.

“Arriving at the Open was strange,” he explains. “Birkdale was the first Open I had been to as a seven-year-old, and now I was the face of it. 

“That week in particular was amazing,” he explains. “It was a huge week in terms of my career. I was playing well going into it after finishing 4th in the US Open.”

The numbers following Fleetwood were like those usually reserved for Tiger Woods – “I got chills each time I walked onto the 1st tee, I felt really emotional” – but the fanfare was dampened somewhat with four bogeys and a double for an opening-round 76 to leave him well off the pace. 

“On the first day there were thousands watching and I was playing with Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama. The first round I had a bad day, it was tricky, but I made it harder than it needed to be. I was 4-over with four holes to play, so I thought if I could make a couple of birdies on the two par 5s then 2-over wouldn’t be too bad.’ In the end, I had a terrible finish and I shot 6-over par.”

From then on it was just about making the weekend. 

“On day two we had a late tee time, and the weather was awful. I think only a few players shot under par. It was really tough. To this day I still believe that my second round 1-under, to make the cut, was one of the best rounds I have ever played. 

“I really wanted to make the cut, and in those conditions, that was one of the rounds of my life. That was also actually the first cut I ever made at an Open Championship.”

The second-round 69 was complemented by weekend scores of 66 and 70 to finish in a tie for 27th, 13 shots off champion Jordan Spieth, but he was still finding his feet in major championships.   

“It’s a really different rhythm at an Open Championship,” he explains. “The practice rounds are busier, you have to sign lots of things, and obviously the courses are harder.

“It took me a while to get there, and there is nothing wrong with going through those phases of your career. Now I turn up to the major championships and feel a lot more comfortable and I obviously play much better.”

Fleetwood’s first taste of the Open – and, indeed, any major – experience had come three years prior 30 miles down the road at Royal Liverpool.

Rounds of 74 and 76 saw him make the short trip back up the north west coast after just two days, but he reflects positively on the experience.

“That particular Open being close to home was very special, especially as my first one. I had a lot of support there. 

“I would usually stay at home for most of it, but one morning I had an early tee time so I stayed in the town. The buzz around the town was a beautiful thing. The attitudes and the happiness of everyone was great. Growing up in an Open town, I feel very close to it and I understand it very well.

“I actually remember my first tee shot. The 3rd [at Hoylake] is actually the 1st for the Open. I was really nervous warming up on Thursday. One of the things I have always thought about the Open is it’s one of the more nerve-racking tee shots in golf. It is like a mini-amphitheatre and it all feels very close. 

“I made the walk from the putting green to the 1st tee and when I got onto the tee I looked at my caddie because I realised I cannot carry the bunkers. I said, ‘I’m going to have to hit 2-iron, aren’t I?’ I mean, pick a club you don’t want to hit on the 1st tee! Anyway, I’ve committed and I’m waiting to start when I noticed that just off the tee there was lots of wispy brown grass. I immediately thought, ‘That’s in-play, I could top this straight into it.’

“I was playing with Ross Fisher and Jon Daly. Eventually the starter said, ‘On the tee, Jon Daly.’ He pulls a 1-iron out and chucks the ball down. Without teeing it up, he flushes it down the middle of the fairway. My reaction was that it seemed a lot easier than I was feeling.

“I got the tee shot away fine in the end, but I remember thinking that is such a Jon Daly thing to do, flushing a 1-iron down the middle of the fairway off the deck, especially when I am worried about hitting it into the shrubbery just off the front of the tee box.”

Fleetwood will get the chance to redeem himself if, as expected, the Claret Jug returns to the Wirral in 2023. He, like so many of his adoring fans, will hope he’s going back as an Open champion.

Tommy Fleetwood was talking on the Open Podcasts. Listen to the full episode below, on Apple Podcasts, or on the Open website.

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