By KEVIN GARSIDE/Independent
Young Briton has ironed out flaws in his game and is raring to go at the US Open in a fortnight’s time
Tommy Fleetwood remembers hitting golf balls aged five in Southport, tagging along with his dad and brother at the range on a Monday night. Almost 20 years on he is walking the same earth as Jack Nicklaus and the golfing elite at the Memorial Tournament in preparation for his maiden US Open at Chambers Bay, Washington, in a fortnight.
Nicklaus’s event in Ohio was a gift courtesy of his American-based management team, Hambric. That is how it starts for emerging golfers, invites via connected parties to high table before the ranking points provide the necessary thrust to those who make the grade. At 24, Fleetwood is doing just that, knocking on America’s door armed with a big smile, a sense of humour and a blue-chip game.
He has yet to shake the hand of Nicklaus, a privilege reserved only for the likes of Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. That is not his primary aim, but he says: “It would be nice to meet him. He’s a legend of the game. I’ll do my best this week and you never know, I might get an introduction.” Not all golfers celebrate major wins at 21, as Woods and Spieth did. McIlroy, was remiss at crossing that threshold one month past his 22nd birthday.
Fleetwood is doing nicely enough, having turned pro at 20 following a stellar amateur career that saw him reach No 1 in the world rankings, and claimed his first European Tour victory at Gleneagles two years ago. “There aren’t many my age doing this,” he says. “You can lose track of how young you are at times because you want everything to happen really quickly. At the moment it is a gradual process. I seemed to be hanging around the world’s top 50, but everything is moving in the right direction.”
Fifty is the magic ranking number in this game, the key to a place in all four majors, World Golf Championship events and eventually a PGA Tour card, should that be your calling. Fleetwood had his first taste of American golf at the PGA Championship last year. The missed cut was a rich learning experience, the lessons of which were still being absorbed when he returned to the States in March to contest his first WGC event, the Cadillac Championship at Doral.
Fleetwood had been battling a technical flaw that when his game was off would see his ball fall out of shape left off the tee in an exaggerated draw. That is not the shot you want at Doral’s Blue Monster, where frogmen stand poised to recover anything left of centre, as McIlroy discovered when he launched a three-iron into the aqua at the par-five eighth.
It was during practice that week with Henrik Stenson and Graeme McDowell that Fleetwood recognised a leap would have to be taken were he to step out at the big show on equal terms. A call went in to Pete Cowen, coach to a host of golfing galacticos, including Stenson and McDowell.
“You have to be honest with yourself,” Fleetwood says. “It is easy to go out practising on your own, but playing with those guys was a big reality check for me. I knew that day I had to do something about it, and Pete was going to be the man to do it. As much as him being the best coach in the world it’s about being in the stable of players he has, Ryder Cup stars and major winners. As well as the technical standpoint, where he is making me a million times better, mentally it’s great to be a part of the group.”
The results were dramatic. Six weeks after propping up the field at Doral he reached the quarter-finals at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play in California, seeing off Sergio Garcia and Ryder Cup hero Jamie Donaldson along the way. “The Match Play did me a lot of favours in terms of confidence. It is massive when you beat these guys. You watch the Ryder Cup on TV and that’s where you want to be. When you play them you have to put that aside.”
Back in Europe, Fleetwood jostled at the top of the leaderboard at Wentworth, last month and again at the Irish Open, neither of which saw McIlroy in action at the weekend. “A lot of this is a mental thing, adjusting to things outside your comfort zone,” he says. “I’m doing a lot of new things, playing in all the top events. You just have to keep doing things that are going to make you better.
“When you are playing in the same event as them [McIlroy, Woods] it is easy to see what you need to do to get where they are. There are a lot of things the best players do better and some of that relates to structure in their lives, a team around them. That enables them to go out and compete day in, day out. You are looking at making small differences that add up to big things. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time for me.”
On the west coast of the United States, perchance? “I’m from the west coast,” he says. “It might only be Southport, but the wind can blow a bit there as well.”
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