News & Opinion

Fleetwood’s 63 nearly steals the show

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – With a scruffy beard and long, flowing brown locks, Englishman Tommy Fleetwood looks more like a rock star than an accomplished golfer.

But during the past 17 months, since his victory at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in January 2017, Fleetwood has emerged as one of the European Tour’s top golfers.

His stature grew even more when he took the title at the HNA French Open last July and was a favorite of many when the British Open returned to Royal Birkdale, just down the street from Fleetwood’s home of Southport, England.

Still, even with two victories in 2017, Fleetwood found that his ascension up the world ranking, from 100 before Abu Dhabi to 18th by the end of 2017, would not turn any heads in the United States.

Fleetwood was a relatively unknown player when competing against the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Tiger Woods.

But on Sunday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, in only his third U.S. Open, Fleetwood enjoyed a coming-out party. He shot a final round 7-under 63 and, if not for a missed birdie attempt, from 8½ feet at the 18th, a playoff with eventual winner Brooks Koepka (scores).

“This week was like on another level, especially today,” Fleetwood said. “As the round went on, more and more people gathered, and I was on a hot streak. And walking up 18 was very special, really. Just having that appreciation in the crowd – it being an American crowd, as well – sort of getting behind an English guy. It was great for me. I loved it, and I do love playing over here.”

Starting the day six shots off the lead of Daniel Berger, Tony Finau, Dustin Johnson and Koepka, Fleetwood methodically took apart a course that a day earlier had given every player who made the cut fits and forcing some, such as Phil Mickelson, to act out in frustration (“Mickelson, USGA disgrace U.S. Open,” June 17).

With four birdies over the first seven holes, Fleetwood became a sidebar to the festivities, considering that none of the leaders had teed off yet.

But Fleetwood’s bogey at the ninth might have prompted the casual observer to look elsewhere. Fleetwood regained his momentum on the back nine, stringing together four consecutive birdies, at Nos. 12-15, to move to 2 over for the tournament. He was near the top of the leaderboard and could control the narrative if he could get into the clubhouse with another birdie or two.

However, with pars on the final three holes, Fleetwood waited for about 2½ hours, watching the leaders, who were still on the front nine.

All the while, Fleetwood’s score loomed over the festivities.

In the end, he came up one stroke short, but Fleetwood, 27, a four-time winner on the European Tour, has raised his profile in the U.S.

Coincidentally, the USGA changed its policy of awarding the silver medal to the runner-up during the trophy presentation. Instead, Fleetwood received the medal at the media flash area, almost as an afterthought.

But to golf fans in the U.S., Fleetwood and his shoulder-length locks will be more recognizable now, and his game likely will be more appreciated on this side of the Atlantic, even if the USGA didn’t give him his proper due.

“In golf, all of us that play, that's where our dreams and ambitions are,” Fleetwood said of winning a major. “We want to win majors. A lot of us want to be world No. 1, and there's certain tournaments we want to win. And it's been that way since you decide to kind of play the game full-time, whenever that point is when you grow up.”

Fleetwood also leaves Shinnecock with a prevailing thought: his final-round 63 nearly produced a major-championship victory. Looking ahead, Fleetwood can build on this memory: His previous 63 came last year in the second round of the Dunhill Links at Carnoustie, the host site of the British Open.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli