Eighteen months ago he wanted to pull out of a tournament because he was petrified he wouldn’t physically be able to tee off on the first hole. Now, Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood is flying and targeting becoming the number one golfer in the world.
The affable 26-year-old Englishman has been extremely candid in Dubai this week about the dark days of a year-and-a-half ago. It was the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last May and Fleetwood recalls feeling “embarrassed” at the way he was hitting the ball.
The Southport native had attempted to alter his swing soon after entering the world’s top-50 in June 2015 in his search to be a “world-class golfer”, but his ploy soon backfired and he began tumbling down the rankings.
He was as low as 188th in September 2016. But he went back to former coach Alan Thompson and old caddie Ian Finnis and gradually things started to turn around. He has been on a steady rise ever since and is now 19th, having been inside the top 20 since July, although he is set to rise sharply again after his European Tour crown.
As good a year as it’s been, both on and off the course for Fleetwood – he became a dad to Frankie seven weeks ago and will marry fiancée Clare in a few weeks – he doesn’t want the Race to Dubai champion to define his career.
“My ultimate goal in life is to be the best player in the world,” he said at his champion press conference on Sunday.
“That will always be the same. Whether I achieve it or not is another thing, but I’ll always strive for that.
“I’ve got a lot of experience in me after the last two, three years. I know that you can go down the wrong path very easily and I think I’ve got people around me and myself included that know how to stay on the right path.
“I’ll always have high expectations but we’ll see where we can go. The ultimate goal, and I think everybody in the profession should have that goal, is to try to be number one in the world.”
Having ended the season with the finest achievement of his career in Dubai, Fleetwood credits UAE capital Abu Dhabi as being the catalyst for his fine 2017.
It was there he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at the end of January – ending a winless drought of more than three years.
And even though he had clambered back inside the top-100 before beating former Abu Dhabi champion Pablo Larrazabal and reigning US Open champion Dustin Johnson, Fleetwood admitted victory proved he was back.
“I won, but that was more a point where my game was back to where I wanted it because we put a lot of work in,” Fleetwood said of the Abu Dhabi triumph that ended a 1,247-day wait for a tournament victory since triumphing at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in August 2013.
“I had come from the lowest point in my playing career, all the way to where I was right where I wanted to be.
“I hadn’t won in three years. But it was more I had proved I was back where my game should be and I knew that I could win. So I wanted to win again and I was very confident that I could.
“I’m quite a determined person and I have a lot of goals in my career. Abu Dhabi was more, it was a goal to win but it wasn’t like the be-all and end-all. It wasn’t like I had achieved what I wanted to achieve.”
Confidence is soaring and after conquering Europe at Jumeirah Golf Estates’ Earth course, one of the goals for next season is to play on the PGA Tour.
“This year has been a big year in terms of my career. You know, some of the performances, I have put myself on the world stage a bit more,” said Fleetwood, who will surely have September’s Ryder Cup in the back of his mind.
“When we sit down after this year, we’ll make sure that the goals get high and lofty and that I push myself to achieve more.
“I’ll always have 2017 Race to Dubai No. 1 but the big events, they will always be on our minds. I want to win, there’s a lot around majors. I’d love to have a couple by the time I’m done.
“I obviously want to play a bit more over there (the US) next year. I think it is a different style of golf and there is a lot of the best players in the world over there. The majors, the majority of majors are over there. The WGCs are there.
“I think it makes you a better player trying to play over there. People come over to the European Tour and I think it makes them better. It makes you a more rounded player. It’s all part of a learning curve and a stepping stone.”
Keith Pelley had no problem with stars Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson missing the Race to Dubai season-finale – despite the fact world number 10 McIlroy was seen playing golf with friends in the week leading up to the DP World Tour Championship.
McIlroy had earlier announced his decision to withdraw from the final event of the European Tour season in order to recuperate after an injury-plagued year, while Stenson pulled out a week before the event after bruising a rib.
McIlroy, 28, was seen playing with pals at Emirates Golf Club, but European Tour Pelley said there was a huge difference between that and four days of grueling championship golf.
“Rory and I had the dialogue, we’ve had the dialogue about him needing the rest, about taking the rest of the season off,” said Pelley.
“Playing a match with your mates is completely different than playing in a competitive golf tournament. Playing in a golf tournament, getting up, practising, playing four days after you haven’t played, you have to definitely be ready.
“I’m totally comfortable with Rory’s decision that he made some time ago. Henrik looked like he was coming last week after he practiced and the very next day, he was practising again, and he got a twinge in the back.
“I said it to Henrik and I said to Rory, the most important thing for the European Tour and global golf is to have our superstars healthy and playing at the best they possibly can be.
“So I totally respect Rory’s decision. But it is a fundamental difference between hitting balls and playing a fun round with your mates than playing in a competitive tournament.”
And Pelley didn’t feel the absence of two of the top 60 in the Race to Dubai rankings had any detrimental impact on the tournament at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
“I think if you look at, (heading into the final day), the number six player in the world was leading and the number five player in the world was second.
“We would love to have Rory here. We would love to have Henrik here. But we have a very strong field that we’re very proud of.”
Pelley also revealed the European Tour is negotiating with local organisers to safeguard the future of the season finale in Dubai.
“We’re having discussions now, again, as we discuss 2019 and 2020 and beyond,” he said.
“This is a terrific golf tournament. This is where our players want to play. We are very fortunate for it to be called the Race to Dubai and to have somebody like DP World, who has been involved for many, many years as the title partner.
“Dubai is absolutely a critical part of our current success and our future plans. We believe that this tournament here at Jumeirah Golf Estates will be here for many years to come.”
All week Justin Rose has carried an air of superiority around Jumeirah Golf Estates. Not in an arrogant, boastful or boorish way, far from it, but every day when the world No6 stood on the first tee at the Earth course he gave the impression he knew he was the best golfer among the 60 of the European Tour’s finest gathered in Dubai.
An understated confidence, few sportspeople carry so naturally.
And along with his own self-belief in his ability, there was the experience and form to back it up.
Even in the pre-tournament press-conferences, the difference in tone between himself and Race to Dubai rivals Tommy Fleetwood and Sergio Garcia was marked.
Garcia was largely pessimistic, with good reason given his considerable points deficit against the backdrop of having to switch clubs on the eve of the tournament, while Fleetwood preached a happy-go-lucky, just-pleased-to-be-here type narrative, also with good reason considering his surprisingly outstanding year.
Rose was as fixed and focused in what he said as he was in his application on the course over the next three-and-a-half rounds.
Along with a video showing him on the practice range at 5am, there was an illuminating quote into his approach on Wednesday when he said: “I think I focus a lot more on the skill of putting rather than the technique. By that, I mean green reading, and then performance drills on the green.”
— Justin Rose (@JustinRose99) November 19, 2017
To watch Rose with his claw putter was at times like some kind of performance art mixed with his own brand of trigonometry.
Every golfer has their own individual routine and ritual in approaching shots but Rose’s appears truly unique. The 37-year-old would at times appear to pick out objects in the distance with his eyes, adjust his body accordingly, then place his hands in line with the hole, before tracing the line of the putt downwards in the air using two fingers.
And it worked. For it wasn’t his putter which let him down in a truly remarkable turn of events at the DP World Tour Championship.
As methodical, thorough and efficient as his golf had been for 65 holes, something happened on the back nine that will take some getting over. The previous 27 holes from 10-18 on Earth he was a combined 10-under. He had one solitary bogey in that span, on the 18th at the end of his second round.
The monster 626-yard 14th where he found water and scrambled for a six, he had birdied twice and eagled on day one.
Of all the players in the field, based on how he had played near flawlessly, his experience, manner and confidence around the course, Rose was the least likely to suffer such a blow-up. He claimed he “hit the wall” as he discussed his near miss – a result, if anything, contextually closer than his second placed finishes in 2012 and 2014.
Maybe the sheer intensity he had placed on himself began to take its toll mentally and subsequently physically? This was a tournament he desperately wanted to win. The man’s an Olympic and US Open champion, though, he’ll know better than anyone. He’ll also recognise that golf is a sport unlike any other to the extent that even the very best win more than they lose.
And in defeat he was as imperious as he had been around the winding route of Earth over the four days. Immediately congratulating Fleetwood, a man he could well have by his side at the Ryder Cup next year, with a warm embrace.
It wasn’t necessary politeness or empty platitudes, there was genuine pride for a young Englishman enjoying the best moment of his career to date.
And while it was Jon Rahm who ultimately proved the best player in Dubai, Rose has no reason to be dissuaded from his own self-assessment, as subjective as that is.
But what was clear was a tangible feeling that there is now something of the statesman about him. Setting examples for the younger generation of Rahm, Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Fitzpatrick and others, both in how he plays golf and his conduct off the course.
At the Ryder Cup next year he could prove to be Europe’s most important player, setting the tone for a clutch of European talent emerging taking on an outrageously-gifted American team.
A situation where more than sheer golfing ability will be required, and all his own qualities will need to be replicated by his
— Justin Rose (@JustinRose99) November 19, 2017