Tommy Fleetwood stood on the 18th hole at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and when the moment came he lifted the Falcon Trophy above his head and shook it to the pale blue UAE sky.
It’s been a life-changing 12 months for the Englishman and nobody would have predicted him to successfully defend his title in such a scintillating manner.
Five shots down as he stepped on to the 10th hole, it looked like a top-seven position would be as good as it was going to get this time around for the 27-year-old.
But, sport can throw up tricky situations and on a blustery day, leader Ross Fisher would go on to bogey two of the next six holes to drop crucial shots at defining moments.
As his scorecard increased, Fleetwood produced the back nine of his life to hole six birdies and subsequently retain his Abu Dhabi crown by two shots.
While much of the talk this week centered on star names such as World No.1 Dustin Johnson and four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy, Fleetwood should now be mentioned in the same conversation.
Ranked 12th in the world, the unassuming Race to Dubai winner’s rise cannot be ignored any longer as he proves hard work and some luck can catapult any sports star into a commanding position among the elite.
Fleetwood is the master and the inspiration for so many golfers worldwide after his meteoric rise over the last 16 months.
In September 2016, he was struggling for form and languished around 188th in the world rankings.
At the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last year, he was two shots down on the final day and beat Johnson to kick-start a stunning season, which ended with him securing the Race to Dubai title.
Throw in nine top-10 finishes, including victory at the HNA Open de France, and it just goes to show what a win can do for any golfer mentally to boost belief in their game.
Fleetwood has proved time and time again that he is as clinical in those pressure situations as the likes of McIlroy and Johnson – and will be a tour de force for the rest of the season.
Although the duo may boast a more formidable world ranking and trophy cabinet, the Englishman is cementing his status at the top.
But for Fleetwood to become the standard-bearer of British golf, he needs to win a Major – only Justin Rose and Danny Willett have achieved this feat since Nick Faldo – and this means his short game will need improving.
In a Ryder Cup year, the Southport resident will have plenty of opportunities to iron out the weaker areas in his armoury as he bids to wrap up a spot on Thomas Bjorn’s team.
The way he carries himself on and off the course will certainly bode well for Team Europe in Paris – but consistency needs to be a priority if he is to convert his sparkling form on the grandest stages of them all.
His sizzling 65 in Abu Dhabi in tough conditions highlighted his remarkable talents and this should be another indicator to reinstate belief that he can be one of the top players in the world.
The journey rolls on. Next week will see him step out at Emirates Golf Club at the Dubai Desert Classic – alongside defending champion Sergio Garcia and McIlroy. His face deserves to be on as many billboards as those two.
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.”