Tommy Fleetwood happy to fly under Open radar after Birkdale

A smiling Tommy Fleetwood meets the media. Picture: Kenny Smith/SNS
A smiling Tommy Fleetwood meets the media. Picture: Kenny Smith/SNS
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He is the reigning No 1 golfer in Europe and is in the world top ten, so his presence is guaranteed to generate some commotion. The long hair also ensures he stands out among his more conservative-looking colleagues.

However, Tommy Fleetwood is glad to be able to hand on the baton of local favourite 12 months after he felt the love at Royal Birkdale. While he described that intense experience as “very cool”, this time around he is looking forward to concentrating solely on taming a course that is notoriously difficult at the best of times.

He can gladly go without the attendant pressure of being the local hero now he’s experienced for himself Carnoustie’s burnt, firm conditions. He’s no longer “the face of the Open championship” and that suits him just fine.

The countdown to last year’s tournament at Royal Birkdale was framed by stories of the young Fleetwood climbing through the fence at the exclusive links to play a few shots. He grew up just a few minutes’ drive away in Southport.

Naturally, there were many willing a narrative whereby Fleetwood returned years later to lift the Claret Jug on his home course. It didn’t work out that way, sadly. But Fleetwood has continued to distinguish himself elsewhere, 
finishing just a shot behind 
US Open champion Brooks Koepka after a stunning final round of 63 at Shinnecock Hills last month.

Perhaps more relevant – or so you would think – is a course record round of 63 at Carnoustie, set as recently as last October in the second round of the Dunhill Links championship. Crucially, this was before a long, dry summer dramatically altered the nature of the challenge facing competitors over the coming days in Angus.

“It’s a completely different course,” said the 27-year-old yesterday. “There’s holes that have [previously] been nothing tee shots, like the 3rd. If you play that in the middle of September or October, when we play it [at the Dunhill Links] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge. But yesterday it was playing so firm, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

Identifying who succeeds Fleetwood as home favourite is not quite so straightforward this time around. Sam Locke, from Stonehaven, probably qualifies by dint of living 44 miles from the course.

Grant Forrest, meanwhile, is a little further away in North Berwick – 144 miles door to door, apparently. Although, he might argue, as the crow flies, he deserves to be the darling of the Angus crowds.

But perhaps both would prefer to fly under the radar. It isn’t always helpful to be the centre of attention. Fleetwood found this out to his cost last year.

“Who is the main attraction this year?” he asked, seemingly cheered to have been relieved of the burden. Fleetwood is bidding to be the first Englishman to win the Open title since Nick Faldo at Muirfield in 1992. But that prospect isn’t necessarily going to thrill the locals, who have five Scots in total to cheer.

Fleetwood seems happy to leave them to it. But he’s too nice to say so of course.

In any case, while Fleetwood certainly seemed to initially suffer for being such a focus of attention in the opening round last year, when he shot 76, he did rally superbly the following day to make the cut, finishing tied-for-27 – his best Open performance in four outings. He had missed the cut in his three previous appearances.

“It was the first time I’d made the cut in an Open,” he reflected yesterday. “So I didn’t win. I didn’t compete in it. I didn’t really get anywhere near to doing anything special, but it was still my best Open performance. So you could look at it that way. I bettered myself in every respect.

“Last year was just a very special experience,” he added. “The week as a whole and as an experience, it just doesn’t happen to everybody. It’s not very often that you play an Open where you grow up.”

While Carnoustie is familiar to him from Dunhill Links appearances, Fleetwood has never competed at an Open here. However, he has heard “the horror stories” and would rather avoid being the latest high-profile casualty of features such as the Barry Burn.

“It’s a tough finish,” he said. “I think the great thing about the golf course is, no matter where you stand in the tournament, coming into the last four holes, particularly [at] 16, 17, 18, nothing is over until it’s over.”