Fleetwood: I know 'absolutely nothing' about Erin Hills
You can tell a lot about a person and their behaviour when the dice aren’t rolling their way. Tommy Fleetwood was playing in the Paul Lawrie Match Play last year and, having once teamed up to devastating effect in a pro-am in Portugal, I shuffled up and asked if he could spare an hour to shoot some instruction pieces.
The general response to this type of request is either ‘No problem’ and player then exits golf course and goes home, or a variety of excuses are trotted out, ‘bit of physio’ or a ‘spot of lunch’ and player then exits golf course and goes home.
Then you have the likes of Fleetwood who is on a different level. At the time he was in a slump, probably the first of his career, but he was the same chirpy, friendly, genuine and interested person that he was when things were going well on the course.
And now after getting back with his boyhood coach, Alan Thompson, and getting his boyhood mate and fellow Evertonian, Ian Finnis on his bag, and putting in a boat load of hard work, things picked up.
This year he won in Abu Dhabi, beating Dustin Johnson by a shot, he nearly added a WGC, coming up one shy of Johnson. The 26-year-old is class personified and it’s lovely to see.
You played in your first Players last month, how was that?
It’s a great event, I really liked it there. We thought the atmosphere was brilliant though on the Sunday we were paired with Smylie Kaufman and he said on the first tee: ‘Don’t you think the crowds have been really underwhelming?’ We just looked at each other and thought not really, you should go to some of the places we go to!
So what do you know about Erin Hills?
Absolutely nothing. I played the Memorial and then had a week off. I came out on Saturday to get used to the greens and see the course.
At a major you generally play nine holes at a time so you spend a lot of time putting and chipping so it will be good to get properly used to the course. I have only played Chambers Bay before so it will be nice to get another one in. Scale-wise it’s about the same as our Open.
And you did alright there?
I did, I was 27th, it was pretty funky but I liked it. It was very different from all the US Opens which you have watched on TV, some of the greens were a bit patchy and had some funny bounces but a lot of the best players in the world were in the top 10 so there must have been something right.
You always see some silly things at a US Open like Payne Stewart missing a six-footer and it running 30 feet away but that’s all part of it. They play some amazing courses and it has always been brilliant to watch on TV, it’s the toughest test and that’s what the majors should be.
What would be a good week?
It’s funny how things change. I came so close to winning the WGC in Mexico that I now know that when I play well
then I have a chance to win.
I don’t have much major or even American experience so I am trying to change the latter part. Their courses are very different and are a lot tougher so I am still getting used to scoring on those type of courses.
Last year you were down in 188th in the world, now you are up to 28th. That is some achievement…
It’s been a lot quicker than we originally thought. Abu Dhabi was so big but by that time it was more we had to win at some point as I was always challenging and that was the culmination of all the hard work we were doing.
Once I started playing well again it was just about getting the confidence back up. I wasn’t always putting very well but that was mainly because I didn’t see myself shooting 66s. Then I had top 10s in Dubai and Hong Kong and they both could have been better. Before Abu Dhabi I hadn’t touched a club for a month up to the week before.
After the 2015 Open you went off the boil for about a year. What was the low point?
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 hit 13 or 14 tee shots into trouble and then just walked the hole with my playing partners. I didn’t say anything to anybody but all I could think about was I don’t think I can get it off the first tee tomorrow.
I was giving Ian a lift on the Thursday, he asked how I was and I said that I could easily withdraw as I was that nervous.
Then you made the cut after rounds of 73-71…
It was unbelievable. 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.
You had the driving yips?
I did, it’s hard to explain to people because in the swing is very hard to see. You can see it in a two-foot putt but I could feel what was going on. I couldn’t physically do what I was trying to do and I was twitching through the ball.
One of my first lessons back with Thommo at Heswall we had two hours of practice and I was hitting it alright. 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 so we knew we had some work to go. Thankfully Thommo could see what was going on.
Previously you had been working with Pete Cowen and Mike Walker?
They are obviously two of the best in the world but there were some things that I couldn’t do and we couldn’t work it out.
Other things have also changed, it was the familiarity of having one of my best mates caddying, a coach who has known me since I was 12 and my fiancée is also my manager.
When did you first meet your caddie Ian Finnis?
Everyone from the Southport area knows each other as it is such a golfing community and he was always a good player, he worked at Formby Hall for a long time, so when I got better I played a bit more with him. He caddied in my last couple of years as an amateur in the big events and also when I just turned pro.
He knows me better than anybody and we have the same sense of humour. He knows my swing very well, he’s listened to every word that Thommo has said and he has watched me play golf since I was 11. And he works incredibly hard and when you are mates you know you have each other’s back.
So there is a lot of additional pressure both ways when things weren’t going well?
It was horrible when we were struggling. We were doing really long hours, at the Open at Troon we had a 36-hole practice round one day as, by the time hitting I was hitting it OK, I had to get confident on the course.
In Mexico we were walking down the 14th fairway on Sunday and he stopped me, put his arm around me and said, ‘How good’s this, by the way?’ Then Thomas Pieters came up behind us and he went, ‘This is good, isn’t it!’ It was brilliant, we were in contention to win a WGC.
I have a psychologist and he always says before we go out, ‘Just look after each other’.
A few people will have thought having one of your mates on your bag wasn’t the smartest move…
When you are a pro you have to make a lot of choices and you are going to get some right and some wrong, I never doubted that it would work, but a lot of people from home and other caddies did. From the outside it might have looked a risky choice, it was just about as much a risk for Ian as well, he’s got a family but he was willing to take the chance.
You meditate don’t you? How has that helped?
I’m getting better and I use the Headspace app. Previously if I couldn’t switch my mind off I would give up but, doing the guided ones, really helps and I’ve done that since December and it’s been brilliant. The hardest thing is to find 10 minutes in the day which is ridiculous.
It has helped me focus more and I think helped me understand my own mind a little bit better. I am now more aware of certain emotions in the present moment.
A lot of people ask how I deal with nerves and I will ask if they meditate? And they laugh but I couldn’t be more serious. Everybody should do it.