Every now and then, a youngster comes along with such precocious talent; he has the potential of single-handedly reinvigorating the sport.
These may still be early days to put Matthew Fitzpatrick in that bracket, but his DP World Tour Championship win on Sunday proves yet again that the 22-year-old from Sheffield is special. In just two short years, his career graph has zoomed to dizzy heights.
From a player who was depending on sponsor’s exemptions to get into tournaments despite clinching his Tour card through the Qualifying School in 2014, Fitzpatrick won an event and broke into the top-50 of the world rankings in his first year as a professional, and then secured a Ryder Cup berth through automatic qualification in his second.
And now, he has won the biggest tournament on the European Tour, playing against a select field of top-60 players. No…not even Rory McIlroy had such an impressive start to his career.
The way the Earth course has played over the years, and the kind of roll of honour it has – Lee Westwood, Robert Karlsson, Alvaro Quiros, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson – the long-hitters have clearly got a distinct advantage over the field.
🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🏆🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼 pic.twitter.com/mcOAqsMe8E— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 20, 2016
Fitzpatrick hardly qualifies in the category of long hitters. That’s what everyone thought. The effects of spending the last three months working hard in the gym is clearly showing as he averaged 298.4 yards off the tee. And he continues to hit it straight.
He was third in the field in fairways hit, and has always been very solid with the putter. Blessed with zen-like composure on the golf course, Fitzpatrick looks like the complete package. Things will keep getting interesting from here on.
Fitzpatrick got a taste of it when he was making that four-feet putt for birdie and victory on the 18th hole. Despite his calm, the world No51 admitted he was “shaking and most nervous ever” in making that putt. The stakes are only going get higher from now on.
With players like Fitzpatrick, and let’s not forget the runner-up Tyrrell Hatton, who is just 25 and having a career year with wins and solid major performances, European golf is in a good place.
While established stars like Henrik Stenson and McIlroy continue to earn plaudits, these youngsters have won events like the DP World Tour Championship and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. The other man in the limelight on Sunday was the Race to Dubai winner Stenson.
It was his second European No1 crown, and this will clearly be more pleasing to him. In 2013, towards the second half, the Swede was in awesome form. Everything he touched, turned into gold. He completed a historic double-double – winning the Tour Championship and the No1 honour on both sides of the Atlantic.
And while that season may have brought in a lot more money, just the fact that he became the first Scandinavian star to win a major this year, makes 2016 an unforgettable season. Somebody asked Stenson if he could make 2017 even better?
There are various ways of doing it. Obviously, a major win, or two, is a sure-shot way of making a better year, but the greatest driving force for him would be the world No1 ranking.
Denied once in 2014 when Adam Scott won the Colonial (even a second place for the Aussie would have made Stenson the world No1), that remains the last bastion for Stenson to ensure that his name is remembered as one of the greatest golfers of all time.
Masters champion Danny Willett was disappointed that he could not cross the final hurdle for a second straight year in trying to become the European No1 player.
The 28-year-old from Sheffield wasn’t successful in chasing Rory McIlroy last year, and he lost the Race to Dubai to Henrik Stenson yesterday. Needing to finish at least 300,000 points ahead of the Swede, he was tied 50th at one-under par.
It continued his poor run of form that started with the Italian Open a couple of months ago, where he finished second. Willett played four continuous weeks counting the DP World Tour Championship, but he could not contend in any of the events.
Two good weekend rounds perked things up for the Englishman, but he could not reproduce the same form at the Earth course.
“It’s been a disappointing four days after good momentum last weekend. Started out slow but moving in the right direction, then it was back to being a bit on and off again on Saturday and frustrations built up and got in the way of playing in golf,” said Willett after his round.
“Today, I played all right. Shoulder has been hurting a little bit but played pretty good and just didn’t hole anything.
“It’s a disappointing four-week stretch I’ve just had to end what will still be a pretty memorable year. It’s just a shame that it’s kind of come to this conclusion.”
Looking ahead, Willett said he will try and reduce a couple of events next year, but said it was still difficult towards the end of the season.
“There’s nothing to blame really. My golf just hasn’t been good enough these last two months. A few little scheduling issues maybe. Going forward, I’ll look into just playing a limited amount and backing myself to do well in the ones that you play,” added the world No11.
“It’s a tough one because the better you’re playing, the more golf you have to play at the end of the season. It is how it is. Looking back we probably should have taken it a little steadier after the Ryder Cup after all that happened.
“Just looking at gives ourselves a couple of weeks off over the last couple of months to kind of stay fresh for these ones.”
Willett also said he’d try to look at the positive side.
“We’ve been playing good golf for two and a half years and it’s good to see you’ve finished second in two Race to Dubais, and 23rd the year before that. Everything is trending in the right direction,” he concluded.
World No2 Rory McIlroy finished his 2016 season with a sparkling round of golf – a seven-under par 65 – and was left to rue what could have been if he had a better opening round in the tournament.
The Northern Irishman said he was still in “holiday mode” when he opened with a three-over par 75 – his only over-par round in 32 rounds played in the eight editions of the tournament so far.
The 65, shot in the company of Henrik Stenson, who took away McIlroy’s European No1 crown, included a stretch of five holes with four birdies and an eagle. It came after a bogey on the fourth hole, to which he later added another dropped shot on the 11th.
“It was nice. Really got it going around the end of the front nine there and thought there could have been something really special on,” said McIlroy.
“Looking at the board, I was six-under through nine, thinking I was maybe three or two behind at that point… yeah, wasn’t quite meant to be. I just didn’t quite keep that momentum going into the back nine, but still a good 65 to finish. I played nicely and I am looking forward to a few weeks off.
“Looking back on the week, Thursday’s the day that I’m going to rue…If I had even just shot something around level par, 1-under, I would have been right in the tournament. But these things happen. I played well for the remaining three days and at least I redeemed myself a little bit.”
McIlroy was full of praise for Stenson, who, between them, have won the previous four DP World Tour Championships and the last five Race to Dubai titles.
“He’s had a phenomenal year and he’s won the Race to Dubai. He deserves it,” said McIlroy, who dropped to fifth in the European rankings, overtaken by runner-up Tyrrell Hatton.
“It’s a great achievement. I think what you need to do, especially someone like Henrik, who plays both sides of the Atlantic and plays two tours, you have to have those big wins, and obviously winning The Open was huge for him.
“You know, he’s been one of most consistent players in the world the last, nearly ten years I guess. I remember when he won the Dubai Desert Classic back in 2006, I think, and I was still an amateur at the time and he was winning. He’s been one of the most consistent players for the last few years.”