PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – On Monday, Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy conducted a clinic at the Players Championship for more than 100 youth from local chapters of The First Tee and PGA Junior League. Addressing the youngsters, Fleetwood told them how he has made four aces, but none on Tour before getting personal and opening up in a way which he perhaps wouldn't do with a roomful of reporters.
"Confidence is not a natural thing for me," he said. "There are plenty of days I don't feel well about how I'm playing.... My confidence begins to rise through an accumulation of a lot of things, a lot of practice, a lot of playing."
Fleetwood sure acts as if he's oozing confidence. He is confident enough to wear his signature locks long, as if he were performing off-Broadway in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He must feel like Superman after coming home in 30 at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course en route to shooting a bogey-free 7-under 65 to grab a share of the Players’ first-round lead with Keegan Bradley (scores).
"I feel good right now," Fleetwood said. "If I was going to pick a start, that would be it."
It's just one round and there's a long way to go, but Fleetwood could be in the trophy hunt for the second consecutive week. (He finished a season-best T-3 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.) As world No. 13, the Englishman is the highest-ranked player who never has won a PGA Tour title. He's due, and he knows it.
"I think that's pretty clear in our minds that that would be the next logical step, to win in America or win on the PGA Tour and then see where we go from there," he said.
Fleetwood, 28, has won four times on the European Tour. When he teamed with Italian Francesco Molinari and became the first European pair to win all four of their matches last fall, he became a full-blooded Ryder Cup hero as "Moliwood" became an overnight sensation in France.
As a solo act, Fleetwood has made his biggest impression stateside at the U.S. Open, finishing fourth in 2017 at Erin Hills and runner-up to Brooks Koepka last year at Shinnecock Hills. Fleetwood had an 8-foot birdie putt for 62, but he missed it and settled for becoming the sixth player to shoot 63 in the U.S. Open.
As Fleetwood zoomed to the top of the second-round leaderboard at Bay Hill last week, NBC/Golf Channel roving reporter Jim "Bones" Mackay voiced his support of Fleetwood and anticipating a breakthrough on this side of the Atlantic.
"I think he's still underrated,” Mackay said. “I think he's a phenomenal player. If he was a stock, I'd be buying it."
The best time to buy Fleetwood's stock would have been a few years ago, when his driver went haywire. His price hit an all-time low when his world ranking plummeted 126 spots from October 2015 to September 2016, to No. 188. But he returned to his childhood coach, Alan Thompson, hired longtime friend Ian Finnis to abandon his job as a golf instructor at England's Formby Hall and become Fleetwood’s caddie, and improved his touch on the greens thanks to putting guru Phil Kenyon. Check Fleetwood's stats, and he's rock solid across the board.
It's one of the reasons why his peers speak so highly of him. In a recent anonymous poll of European Tour players conducted by Golf.com, Fleetwood was named the best Euro without a major and the one most likely to earn the most points over the next three Ryder Cups.
"He's a very complete player," said Molinari, who shot 64 on Sunday to win at Bay Hill. "He's a bit of a streaky putter, but when he gets it going, he's hard to beat."
Fleetwood has made playing on golf’s biggest stage, the PGA Tour, his top priority. He competed in 19 events last season and is making his sixth start this week.
"I love it out here," Fleetwood said. "Since I've played out here more regularly, it's improved my game because I feel like there's different tests."
Fleetwood failed a big test last week. He was the 35-hole leader and looked primed to make the API his maiden victory on U.S. soil until he ballooned to a 4-over 76 in the third round.
"It was a very tough day," Fleetwood said. "But last week, I felt very comfortable and confident. It was nice to be up there again. It just didn't happen for me."
There's that word – confident – again. Fleetwood's confidence and comfort level playing from the front will be tested this week. Count Molinari and McIlroy among those who wouldn't be surprised if Fleetwood joins them as PGA Tour winners.
"He's one of the best players in the world, and he's had his chances already, and so, yeah, I think it's only a matter of time, for sure," McIlroy said.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak