'I wish I had given myself a better chance'

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Hometown boy Tommy Fleetwood's Open chances were dashed on Thursday but how did he finish off his week? We followed throughout the final round...

On the road into Royal Birkdale, a large white sign threatens to distract drivers.

Its message is one of hope, and pride – Scarisbrick Hall School wishing their former charge well for the ‘British Open’. (We’ll let them off just this once.)

Tommy Fleetwood has been the poster boy for this tournament.

His face adorns the huge banners that cling to railings and seem to hang off every lamppost in Southport.

He’s the hometown boy done good.

As a kid the 26-year-old used to ‘bunk on’ to this glorious links layout and hit the odd shot.

“The 5th was the place that used to be a lot more open, and it’s got fences and bushes there now, so that’s gone,” he said the day before the Open got under way.

“My dad now walks the dog, you start to the right of the 18th green, and you can walk all the way around past 17, at the back of the 16th green, and eventually you get to Hillside and it’s all one long walk. It’s a very cool walk.”

Growing up, everything was about Birkdale for Fleetwood. Mark O’Meara’s win in 1998 was the first Open he ever attended, and he was a match away from qualifying a decade later before losing in the final of the Amateur.

He was so upset at stumbling at the last hurdle, he couldn’t bring himself to watch that year.

But times have changed for Tommy, and quickly. Once a three-figure price to lift the Claret Jug, Fleetwood was close to fighting it out for favouritism following a year that’s brought success in Abu Dhabi and the Open de France.

That also brings expectation. Fleetwood was expected to do well and he had the desires of an entire area resting heavily on his shoulders.

Did it weigh him down?

While Birkdale basked on Thursday – and Jordan Spieth was among four who shot 65 – Fleetwood slumped to a 76. The Claret Jug was not going to be his.

Released, perhaps, from the subconscious burden that had followed him for a couple of months, Fleetwood returned with rounds of 69 and 66, the former an incredible effort given the wind and the rain that saw so many come a cropper.

He called it one of his best of the year.

Fleetwood won’t see it like this, but just getting to the weekend was an achievement for the Southport native. In three previous Open starts, he’d never made the cut.

Tommy Fleetwood

So what would the fourth day bring? Could he finish off in style?

It felt more like Thursday than Saturday. Back then, Fleetwood insisted he hadn’t done much wrong – even though the six-over total suggested otherwise.

Here he just couldn’t get anything going. Drives were slightly off target, putts dropped a shade short, or just pushed by.

He was everything he didn’t want to be on the Open Sunday he’d waited so long to experience.

It was all easy enough – easy and frustrating. There were 11 straight pars. But then the first bogey came at 12.

He lipped the hole on the par-3 14th and a day where he’d anticipated a charge looked in jeopardy of unravelling.

A photographer perched just off the tee on 15 urged him to smile. Waiting for a log jam ahead to clear, Fleetwood dropped his hat briefly over his head in mock sorrow before sitting alone contemplating where it was all going stale.

From the galleries, though, there had been love and support all afternoon. On every tee, in every fairway, on every green, they yelled his name and urged him on to greater things.

They came in celebrity packages as well. The stir Fleetwood was making inside the ropes was matched by the noise boxer Tony Bellew was attracting outside them with the supporters.

The Evertonian walked every step of the way, a mission complicated by yet another selfie to negotiate seemingly every half a dozen steps.

The energy coming from the ropes finally kicked Fleetwood into life. He recovered a shot on the 15th, with a regulation birdie.

He then rolled in another putt on the next to get back to level par for the day.

If only he’d managed something similar on 18, where the ovation he received will live with him for the rest of his life.

It wasn’t what he wanted, it wasn’t what he’d longed for, but did that home Open live up to his dreams?

“The first tee on Thursday was the best atmosphere I have ever seen in my life,” he reflected. “On Friday night, there were people out there at 8.30pm and it was horrendous weather.

“It was amazing to have a crowd that much on your side.

“It’s been brilliant. I wish I had given myself a better chance. Whatever happened, this week was always going to be one to remember.”

For more from Royal Birkdale, check out our dedicated Open site

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