From the yips to winning the Race to Dubai: The making of a championNovember 19, 2017 Golf News
Eighteen months ago Tommy Fleetwood's swing and mind was in tatters. Now the 26-year-old is Europe's No. 1. Mark Townsend charts the rise of a new champion
Everyone likes Tommy Fleetwood; his fellow players, the caddies, the fans, the media, everyone. I once asked some of the staff on the European Tour who was the nicest player to deal with – they all said Fleetwood.
There are no sides to him, he doesn’t get carried away with himself and, in interviews, he’s open, honest and interesting. Some players will hush up any frailties over their game, maybe not wanting to show any signs of weakness, Fleetwood just lays it on the table.
Eighteen months ago Fleetwood’s golf was in a very different place, he was twitching through the ball in his swing. In short he had the yips.
“I rang my dad from China in May last year and I said I’m really struggling here. But the lowest point was Wentworth where I really didn’t want to play. I played the pro-am and we were playing ‘par is your friend’ and I reckon I hit 13 or 14 tee shots into trouble and then just walked the hole with my playing partners,” he told NCG in an interview.
“I didn’t say anything to anybody but all I could think about was I don’t think I can get it off the 1st tee tomorrow. I was giving Ian [Finnis] a lift on the Thursday, he asked how I was and I said that I could easily withdraw as I was that nervous.”
Being the consummate professional he dug deep and somehow made the cut but then the wheels, as expected, came off.
“The third round was 81 as I had nothing else to give. Making that cut was the best achievement of the year to that point by a mile.
“One of my first lessons back with [boyhood coach] Alan Thompson at Heswall we had two hours of practice and I was hitting it all right. To the right of the range is a tee so he suggested to finish off hitting some shots on the course. And I hit six 4-irons right into the water, they were all yips, I couldn’t let the club go.”
And now he’s the Race to Dubai champion thanks in part to Thompson’s intervention, Finnis taking over the bag-carrying duties, Phil Kenyon’s continued putting guidance, becoming a dad for the first time with his fiancee and manager Clare Craig, on top of all the skills that he already had and the family and friends who were already in place.
The final 2017 #RaceToDubai rankings 📊
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 19, 2017
Fleetwood is still only 26 but he’s been on the radar for quite some time. To the Southport locals they’ve known about him since he was just seven.
There’s a brilliant story that bizarrely involves Fleetwood and Lee Janzen who had just been crowned the 1998 US Open champion. The American, who was playing in the Open at Royal Birkdale, was doing a clinic at Formby Hall as part of a TaylorMade initiative on the Tuesday of Open week.
As is the way a number of teenagers were asked to come forward and hit shots which preceded a collection of mishits and anxious tops.
Fleetwood, aged seven and not a very big seven, put his hand up, stepped forward and started ripping it down the range. Janzen’s jaw dropped, along with the 150 or so gathered there that day, and the club and TaylorMade looked after him from that day forward.
These days we all know who Tommy Fleetwood is. He’s 19th in the world and next year he’ll be a Ryder Cup player.
Coming into 2017 the goal was to add a second victory – he had ‘only’ won once previously at the Johnnie Walker at Gleneagles in 2013, and his game was very much on an upward curve after the dark days earlier in the year.
In his first start he had ticked off that objective, two birdies in the last three holes edging out Dustin Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal at Abu Dhabi. Less than two months later Johnson turned the tables on him at the WGC-Mexico Championship but there was the small consolation of picking up close to €1 million.
There was a play-off defeat to Bernd Wiesberger in China after a disappointing Augusta, and then, at the US Open at Erin Hills, came a round that added an additional layer of self-belief. On the Saturday, playing in the penultimate pairing with Brooks Koepka, Fleetwood shot a 68 that he ranks up there with as good as anything he had previously produced.
“That was one of the biggest and best rounds of my life. I played better than almost anybody on that golf course and that was the Saturday of the US Open, one of the biggest events in the world with the best players. So experiences like that just prove to yourself more than anything, even if you think you can or you say you can, you have to do it still.
“I didn’t win. Finished 4th. I got to watch the winner play. But just results and performances like that just prove to yourself that you can. I know I can perform. I know in the back of my mind, I know I can handle it.”
A fortnight later there was France, at the 2018 Ryder Cup venue, and his second success of 2017. The gap between his first and second wins was 94 events, the gap between his second and third just 11. The Southport star ripped it all week, barely missing a green and finished a shot ahead of Peter Uihlein.
Come the end of the season he would sit on top of both the Driving Accuracy – not bad for someone with some previous of driving yips – and Greens in Regulation.
He arrived at Royal Birkdale as the local Pied Piper, but while things didn’t quite work out quite as we’d all hoped he battled brilliantly to make the cut and subsequently post a top 30. Other highlights included that course-record 63 at Carnoustie shortly after becoming a dad and now Dubai where it could all have been so different but plenty of us got the winner that we were after.
This week Fleetwood revealed that he was motivated by a tweet earlier in the year where somebody laughed at the thought of him winning the Race to Dubai.
Who’s laughing now?