As was clear for all to see in the immediate aftermath of his victory at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa last November, Tommy Fleetwood is an emotional wee soul. Almost two years had passed since his previous win in Abu Dhabi – a near-eternity for one of golf’s top-10 players – and he was, at least briefly, quite overcome by it all.
Which is no surprise. While it has been obvious for a while that the 29-year-old Englishman is one of the more accomplished ball-strikers in professional golf, he is also one of the most approachable members of the game’s elite. This is a lad who has never forgotten where he came from.
It measures only 6,253-yards and plays to a standard scratch of 69, but for Fleetwood, Southport’s Municipal course – not too far from the local Pleasureland – is where it all began. “There’s a hump in the first fairway, maybe 50-yards off the tee,” he says. “I couldn’t get over it for the longest time.”
Still, by the time he was eight, Fleetwood was regularly shooting in the 80s and giving his elder brother, Joe – himself a former professional – a run for his 10-years older money. (“One of us was an accident – not sure which,” says Tommy). His first handicap was 27 but he was playing off a one-handicap as a 13-year old and plus-one a year later. “I was a big kid who could putt well,” he says. “And I had a naturally good swing, better than it is now.”
He is, of course, being typically modest. His list of achievements is long – and sure to get longer: Runner-up in the Amateur Championship in 2008, a Walker Cup player in 2009, second in a Challenge Tour event as an amateur in 2010, number-one on the Challenge Tour money-list in 2011, first to burst through the tape on the Race to Dubai six years later and a star on the European Ryder Cup team in 2018.
While that progression might appear somewhat seamless, it was not. In the midst of all the successes sits the year 2012. Despite all that has happened since, that may still be the most important year of Fleetwood’s career.
“I spent a lot of time sulking … It was the first time I had really lost form. And I didn’t know how to cope with it.” – Tommy Fleetwood
After sailing along through his life as an amateur (he was ranked No.1 in the world) and doing the same during his brief 12-month stint as a Challenge Tour player, he hit the proverbial wall. And, initially, he did not react well to a first taste of adversity.
“I spent a lot of time sulking,” he admits. “I wasn’t playing great but I bet I’ve played worse many times since and scored better. I just wasn’t ready. My short game was bad. It was the first time I had really lost form. And I didn’t know how to cope with it.
“I would go home at weekends and sit in my chair and think about what I was doing wrong. I should have been out trying to fix those things. It was mostly short game. I was hitting it okay. But I had lost confidence and the ability to score. And it’s hard to get out of that rut. I would start with three birdies and still shoot two over. I couldn’t do anything right. And as you do when things are not going your way, I missed a bunch of cuts by a shot.”
It came down to this. Arriving at the South African Open, his final event of the season, the then 21-year old sat 124th on the European Tour’s Order of Merit. In other words, something special had to happen. And it did. Shooting a 69 in the last round, Fleetwood finished T-6 and hauled himself up a card-saving 14 places on the money-list.
That week, however, was not the most important of the 2012 season.
“Everyone talks about South Africa, but for me it wasn’t the turning point of a very frustrating year,” says Fleetwood. “The turning point of that frustrating year came in Holland in September. In the second round of the KLM Open I got down in two from 160-yards on the 16th, then did the same from 115-yards at each of the last two holes. I made the cut on the number, then played really well on the weekend, finished T-17 and won €22,860. Without that, I would have lost my card.”
No wonder then that he was close to tears at Sun City. While it remains to be seen just how far this immensely likeable young man can go in the game, where he came from – and where he has already been – reveals an uncommon strength of character. Barrack for him every chance you get.