The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship transformed the career of Tommy Fleetwood in 2017 but the new world number 12 claims retaining his trophy means more to him as it proves he belongs at golf’s elite level.
The affable Englishman produced a brilliant back nine display, sinking six birdies to surge to the top of the leaderboard and successfully defend his title.
The 27-year-old stormed home in just 30 strokes to complete a closing 65, with his -22 underpar total giving him a two shot victory over compatriot Ross Fisher.
It’s been a whirlwind year for the Southport native, who was in danger of sliding into obscurity coming into the 2017 season 12 months ago, hovering just outside the world’s top 100.
But a win at Abu Dhabi Golf Club rebooted his career – Fleetwood had been as low as 188th in the world the previous September – and he finished the year ranked 18th after being crowned Race to Dubai champion at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
And he continued his love affair with the UAE by retaining his Abu Dhabi title yesterday in scintillating fashion – recording an epic round of -7 under par to blow away his competition at the top of the field on a gusty final day.
And despite obtaining a victory that reignited his career a year ago, Fleetwood insisted yesterday’s triumph felt even sweeter.
“I feel a lot more emotional actually than last year,” said Fleetwood, who will rise six places to No12 when the new world rankings are released today.
“I don’t know why. I just really wanted to win this one. I had the year of my life last year. I know everybody has been talking about it, and just backing it up is the next big thing, really. It’s nice to show to yourself that you are still moving forward.
“So to keep it going and hit form early, and to defend, it’s a weird feeling coming to defend a trophy because it’s yours and you don’t want to give it away. You feel quite possessive over your trophy and you don’t want to give it back.
“I’ve never come to a tournament as defending champion before. So that’s always been in the back of my mind this week. So keeping hold of it for another year is very nice.”
Early on it looked as if world number 31 Fisher was going to reel in his first win in almost four years. The 37-year-old eagled the second and recorded two birdies on the front nine, leading by four strokes at one stage.
While he stormed to the turn in 32, Fleetwood was flailing, five shots adrift.
But he began for home with a birdie on 10, while Fisher did well to salvage a bogey after wrestling with the desert scrub.
It proved to be a crucial momentum swing. Fleetwood holed a 15 footer on 12 to make it a three-way tie for second alongside Rory McIlroy and overnight joint-leader Thomas Pieters, the Belgian’s challenge unravelling following a double bogey on 11.
Fleetwood’s melodic back nine continued with a gain from eight feet on 13 as he had the others dancing to his tune, and he drew level with Fisher by rolling in a 30 footer at 15.
A spectacular 40 footer on the next hole put him in front for the first time since the opening round, and a wayward tee shot on15 saw Fisher drop a shot to fall two behind.
Although he got the shot back on the next, Fleetwood maintained the pressure with a birdie at the last, and Fisher was unable to eagle the 18th to force a play-off.
Fisher said: “Hats off to Tommy. I don’t feel like I’ve lost a tournament. Tommy’s gone out there and shot 65 and he’s won it, so all credit to him.”
In elusive victory in Abu Dhabi passed Rory McIlroy by yet again, but the Northern Irishman is content following a third-place finish after returning to the golf course following a 100-day injury lay-off.
After shooting -3, -6 and -7 under par rounds across the opening three stanzas of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the world number 11 closed with a -2 under par 70 on his long-awaited return to action, finishing in a share of third with England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick – four shots behind returning champion Tommy Fleetwood.
McIlroy’s challenge faded on the back nine yesterday, but he admitted to being “really happy” with his game following more than three months on the sidelines.
And he heads to the Dubai Desert Classic next weekend in confident mood. Unlike his luckless spell in Abu Dhabi, where he has finished runner-up four times and third twice, McIlroy has fond memories of Dubai – it was the scene of his first win as a professional, aged 19, in 2009.
“It’s a golf course I know very well,” McIlroy said of Emirates Golf Club, where the Dubai Desert Classic tees off on Thursday.
“My game is in good shape. I have no doubt if I can play the same way I played this week, I’ll have a good chance next week.
“It’s just a matter of dust myself off and, looking back on this week, it’s been a huge success for me, even though I didn’t win today. I felt like I got a lot out of it and I’m excited to get back at it again next week.
“It could have been a little bit better today. Overall, I’m really happy how I played this week.
“My game is in really good shape and I saw some really, really positive signs. I’m looking forward to next week in Dubai and obviously looking forward to the rest of the season.”
McIlroy, 28, shut down his 2017 campaign after the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October, citing a rib injury. It transpired that things were actually a little more serious as a heart irregularity was discovered.
But on the eve of his return, McIlroy insisted his health was never in danger. And the four-time major winner revealed he’s in a “better place” and claims he would have taken such a lofty finish on his return prior to the weekend.
“Yeah, I would have. I really would have,” he said.
“Again, I didn’t really know what my expectations were coming into this week. I just wanted to get back on the golf course and play again. I’ve done that and I’ve played pretty well. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do.
“I maybe didn’t get the ball close enough on the back nine today but it’s been really good. I’m really happy with how I played and it gives me confidence going into not only next week but the few months ahead, as well.
“Where I’ve come from the last three months, just in terms of my health and my golf and everything, I’m in a much better place now than when I left the game for a little bit in October.
“I’m really happy with that and just looking forward to getting back at it again next week and trying to put myself in contention again and try to get my name on that trophy one more time in Dubai.”
England’s Tommy Fleetwood successfully defended his title at the $3 million Abu Dhabi Championship Sunday, shooting a seven-under par 65 round to beat compatriot Ross Fisher by two shots.
The 27-year-old Southport resident made the turn at one-under par, but was on fire on the back nine. He made six birdies, including one on the closing 18th hole, to edge Fisher.
The back-nine heroics of Fleetwood, ranked 18th in the world and expected to rise to No10 when the new list is released Monday, included making a 25 feet putt for birdie on the 15th hole to tie for the lead with Fisher, and then a 50-feet birdie putt to take outright lead on the 16th hole.
Fisher (69) started the day in impressive fashion with an eagle on the second hole, courtesy a 45-feet putt, and was four-under at the turn. But on the back nine, he made a bogey on the 10th and a solitary birdie on the 16th hole to finish on 20-under par.
Last year, Fleetwood beat the reigning world No1 Dustin Johnson by one shot, kickstarting a successful season that culminated in him winning the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.
Johnson (70) finished on 14-under par this year, while former world No1 Rory McIlroy shot a 70 to tie for third place at 18-under par alongside Matthew Fitzpatrick (69).
Overnight joint leader Thomas Pieters (72) and winner of last week’s South African Open, England’s Chris Paisley (69) were tied fifth at 17-under 271.