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Fleetwood, Perez take varied Open paths

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Twenty-two years ago at Oakland Hills near Detroit, American Tom Lehman let the U.S. Open slip away to good friend Steve Jones.

After the final round, Lehman summed up his one-stroke loss. “Being [in] the last group at the Open is a little bit more pressure,” said Lehman, who led after 54 holes but closed with a 1-over 71 to Jones’ 69. “As you get older and more mature as a player, you are able to kind of push that out of the way and just go ahead and do your thing.”

One month later, Lehman would do his “thing,” posting a two-shot victory over Ernie Els and Mark McCumber in the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

Since then, only Tiger Woods, in 2005, has finished runner-up in the U.S. Open and then won the British Open in the next month. It’s a feat that Englishman Tommy Fleetwood is trying to duplicate this week in the 147th British Open at Carnoustie Golf Links.

On Friday, Fleetwood shot the lowest round of the tournament, a 6-under 65, to put himself into the mix. He stood one stroke behind Americans Zach Johnson (67) and Kevin Kisner (70), who were tied at 6-under 136 (scores). Fleetwood shared third place with Americans Pat Perez (68) and Xander Schauffele (66) at 5-under 137.

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England’s Tommy Fleetwood seeks to halt the Americans’ streak of winning major championships at 5.

© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
England’s Tommy Fleetwood seeks to halt the Americans’ streak of winning major championships at 5.

“I had some time on the range last night and came out today and just did a lot better, basically,” said Fleetwood, who made six birdies in a bogey-free round. “Put it in position all day and holed a few putts in tough conditions. It’s a really good round of golf.”

It wasn’t his first exceptional round in a major championship. Fleetwood closed with a 7-under 63 in the U.S. Open last month at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, ultimately finishing one stroke behind winner Brooks Koepka.

At 27, Fleetwood is coming into his own, having vaulted to No. 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking. His distinctive, long-flowing brown locks make him instantly recognizable, but his game is what is getting everyone’s attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fleetwood also is one of Britain’s few hopes for a home victory in a nation that hasn’t produced a major champion since England’s Danny Willett in the 2016 Masters. The Americans have won the past five of golf’s biggest titles.

“I’ve played very well, and I’ve had some performances that I’m very proud of,” Fleetwood said. “Yet at the moment, I’ve put myself high in the world rankings, and I’ve had the U.S. Open just recently. I’ve had a great result. With that comes expectation, and with that comes you have to learn to manage it and handle it.

“You always have expectation on yourself. That’s just a given, really, but it’s something that you get used to and something that you have to learn about. At the same time, it’s much nicer than having no eyes on you at all.”

Fleetwood sounds much like that older and more experienced Lehman discussing his U.S. Open loss to Jones.

As the media prodded him about ending the Brits’ major-championship drought, Fleetwood pushed back that 36 holes remain to be played this weekend.

Fleetwood will not be in the final group today. That distinction belongs to Kisner and Johnson. Instead, Fleetwood will be paired in the penultimate game with Pat Perez. The American presents a similar look in hairstyle but brings a different outlook to the course.

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American Pat Perez, at 42 and recovered from shoulder surgery, finds himself contending at Carnoustie for his first major championship.

© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
American Pat Perez, at 42 and recovered from shoulder surgery, finds himself contending at Carnoustie for his first major championship.

“The best part for me is, no one thinks that I can win,” said Perez, who bogeyed the final hole for a 3-under 68. “For me, that makes it easier to play. I don’t have any pressure. I’m not Rory [McIlroy] and Tiger and these guys that have won so many times, and they have the pressure of winning more of them.”

That doesn’t mean that Perez will be an uninterested observer. He wants to win as badly as everyone else, but at age 42 and after surgery two years ago on a torn labrum on his left shoulder, he is more of a renaissance man, with two of his three career PGA Tour victories since the surgery.

“You can ask Tiger,” Perez said of his boyhood rival in Southern California. “He’s done the same thing. He’s had all these surgeries. He’s back. He’s happy to be playing again. In so many ways, that’s the way I am, too. It’s hard to believe, at 42, I’ll be on top of my game.”

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