There is a strange ambience to the Under Armour store in which Matthew Fitzpatrick is holding court with journalists. While he is sequestered in one corner, shoppers are casually milling around at the other end wondering what the big fuss is about.
Even though it has been 12 months since Fitzpatrick won the DP World Tour Championship, and another couple since latching on as the youngest member of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, the softly-spoken Englishman evidently still finds it easy to blend in at Dubai Mall.
“I have had a few more people notice me – I have to admit my best one ever was literally the week after I won in Dubai and I went to see my girlfriend in Atlanta,” Fitzpatrick says.
“We went to their local takeaway place to pick up a pizza and we were sat down waiting for it.
“The guy who worked behind the bar came up to me and said, ‘has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Matt Fitzpatrick?’ I said, ‘no, it’s me’ and he was amazed as he’d seen me on TV.
“That was strange, though I didn’t get a free pizza. I should have asked for it …
“I’ve tended just to go with (the recognition), you get it at tournaments all the time.
“But when I’m with my mum, dad and girlfriend and friends it’s a little bit different, as they think ‘wow – these guys know him’. But you just try to be a normal person.”
Masters winner Sergio Garcia and the blisteringly in-form Justin Rose are the names who are likely to be followed around by a long string of admirers at Earth course this week, but Fitzpatrick’s relative anonymity is unlikely to last past next year.
At just 22 years of age, he became the youngest Englishman since Nick Faldo to win three European Tour events last season and though he was powerless to prevent Europe from slipping to defeat at Hazeltine, he further boosted his reputation by clinching the season-ending DP World Tour Championship – etching his name on an honours board alongside Major winners Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy.
He has returned to the country fresh from another fine European Tour season that has added a further €1.8m to his coffers, while a Ryder Cup on European soil lingers tantalisingly on the horizon just as soon as he is finished attempting to defend his crown at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
This year, however, certainly did not begin as well as 2016 ended – a first real crack at conquering America fell by the wayside early in the season, while the 23-year-old had to persevere through a summer slump.
“It’s been a funny one really, I had a half- decent start to the year but didn’t play as well I would have liked and had a pretty poor summer so I was disappointed with that,” admits the world No31, who sits 12th on the Race to Dubai.
“But the last eight or nine weeks have been really good – I met up with my team just before the Czech Masters (in September) to figure out what I needed to do better and since then it’s been good.
“It was more frustrating because I felt like I was working really hard and everything just wasn’t paying off.
“I was doing a lot with my team just trying to be more consistent and play better and I just didn’t have a good summer. It got me down a little bit, I was frustrated, but we managed to turn it around.
“Everything else was OK but, I was just really struggling with my driving. I was losing half a shot a round but in comparison now I’m gaining three a round, so it’s made a big difference to my score.”
START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON
Fitzpatrick has maximised his good run of form by playing consecutive tournaments in China, Turkey and latterly South Africa for the Nedbank Golf Challenge, before turning up in Dubai a day later.
He’s even starting 2018 a little earlier than the rest of us in Hong Kong next week as he kick-starts a long and winding road to Le Golf National, the French venue for the Ryder Cup in September.
“No fatigue’s setting in yet, I haven’t fallen asleep on the golf course, but it’s just a long stretch – and it always is at the end of the year,” he says. “Hong Kong is the first event of the 2018 season. I’m looking forward to that because as a city, and the golf course, it’ll be a fun week.
“With it being a Ryder Cup year too, it’s one of those where you want to play these big events in which you can earn a lot of points. If you have a couple of good finishes you can almost wrap it up.
“I’d love to be able to get my PGA Tour card for the year after – the cards are done already for next year – but 2019 would be pretty cool.
“It’s definitely something in my mind that I’d want to achieve eventually and hopefully next year will be the first time. But we’ll see – my main goal is to make the Ryder Cup team.
“I like weeks off but at the same time, going back to Sheffield in November isn’t ideal to practice.”
But his hometown is never too far from his thoughts, as his beloved Sheffield United aim to cash in on a fantastic start in the second tier of English football and return to the Premier League next season.
“I keep an eye on them as much as possible and when I’m home I try and get down to Bramall Lane,” he adds. “It’s been a great year so far, I’ve met (manager) Chris Wilder a few times and he’s been doing a great job with the team. I’ve met a few of the lads as well and they seem to be a proper team this year. It’s exciting for the club.
“I haven’t played a round with any of them yet but it’s something on the cards.”
Steel City dwellers – those who don’t support Sheffield Wednesday – may be able to crow about a sporting double next year.
Branden Grace will enter this week’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship, Dubai inside the top ten of the Race to Dubai after winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player.
The South African’s eighth career European Tour title saw him move from 34th to ninth place in the rankings with a season tally of 1,069,290 points.
With Justin Rose out of action in South Africa, a win for Race to Dubai leader Tommy Fleetwood would have seen him being crowned Europe’s Number One with a week to spare.
However Fleetwood’s tied tenth place finish means he extended his advantage over his resurgent fellow countryman Rose to just over 250,000 points going in to the last event of the season, which sees the top 60 players on Tour descend on the Jumeirah Golf Estates’ Earth course for the DP World Tour Championship from Thursday 16 to Sunday 19 November.
Grace began the final day at the Gary Player Country Club in Sun City trailing overnight leader Scott Jamieson by three shots, however with four holes left, he was part of a three-way tie for the lead with Jamieson and France’s Victor Dubuisson.
Grace broke the deadlock on the par three 16th when he sunk a stunning 40-foot birdie putt to go one ahead of the field, a lead he held on to all the way to the end of the tournament to seal his first Rolex Series victory.
“This is the one event that as a South African you want to win, it’s Africa’s Major for a reason and what a special place it is,” said Grace, who became the first home winner of the event since Trevor Immelman triumphed in 2007.
“I had to stay patient and I had to take the chances when they came my way. I missed a couple of short ones but I think the big key was the putt on 16.”
The event in South Africa marked the final opportunity for those players outside the fabled top 60 in the Race to Dubai rankings to stake their claim for a spot in the DP World Tour Championship field and it proved to be a big week for lone runner-up Jamieson who booked his ticket to Dubai after picking 1,229,655 points to move from 75th to 23rd in the rankings. The Scotsman will now make his fourth appearance at Jumeirah Golf Estates when he tees off on the Earth course on Thursday.
Another man who booked his place in the season-ending finale was Victor Dubuisson. The Frenchman came in to the week in 73rd place in the Race to Dubai rankings but a third place finish in South Africa saw him jump to 38th place in the rankings.
Two South Africans who also ensured they’ll be playing in the season finale later this week are Haydn Porteous and Richard Sterne. The former finished in 12th place at Sun City to move from 65th to 57th in the rankings while Sterne did just enough to break in to the top 60, finishing in 19th place to move from 61st to 60th spot in the Race to Dubai.
Two-time major winner Martin Kaymer and the young Chinese star Haotong Li also made strides up the rankings despite their spots in the Dubai field already being secure prior to the start of the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player. Li finished in fourth place to move to 17th in the rankings while Kaymer’s fifth place finish boosted him from 46th to 35th.
With the penultimate event of the season done and dusted, only Rose and Sergio Garcia are now mathematically close enough to catch Fleetwood at the DP World Tour Championship.
“Playing in the DP World Tour Championship is very, very special and it’s something that actually very few people get the chance to do,” said Fleetwood, who has a season-tally in excess of four million points.
“I think to be in with a chance of winning the Race to Dubai, it’s pretty special, really. It’s not a burden. I don’t feel stressed about it, I don’t feel anxious. I just think it’s great that I’ve got the chance to win it and a good chance. Hopefully I can come back on Sunday and I’ve won both, I’ve won the tournament and the Race to Dubai. That would be great, wouldn’t it? It’s going to be great next week.”
As Jumeirah Golf Estates prepares to welcome 65,000 fans and 60 of the world’s top golfers for the DP World Tour Championship, the leading residential golf community lifts the curtain on the preparation required to host a truly global sporting event in Dubai.
As the tournament takes place for the ninth time, Jumeirah Golf Estates is poised to again host the season-ending finale from November 16-19.
The Championship Village will offer a wider range of food and beverage outlets than ever before plus a brand new trick shot artist, Paul Barrington.
Spectators can try out their hand at DP World’s six-hole mini golf challenge or practice their skills around world famous landmarks in the DP World Around the World Challenge.
At least 65,000 fans are expected to attend the four-day tournament.