Local hero Tommy Fleetwood eager to shine in Open spotlight

Just over two years ago, Tommy Fleetwood virtually went unrecognised as he sat in a cafe in Gullane having breakfast on the Saturday morning of the Scottish Open. Partly, perhaps, because he wasn't dressed in his golf gear and looked more like a rock singer with his long hair. The fact his form had started to take a dip around then also attributed to that instance of anonymity, even in golf-mad East Lothian, but how things have changed for the Englishman in the interim.

England's Tommy Fleetwood tees off at the second hole during yesterday's practice round at Royal Birkdale.

He’s won twice on the European Tour this season, leads the Race to Dubai, sits 14th in the world, finished fourth in last month’s US Open and now heads into the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale as one of the leading contenders. There’s no chance of any anonymity on the back of that lot. The fact this week’s event just happens to be taking place in Southport, his home town, adds to it providing Fleetwood with one of those rare chances in sport to pull off something very special indeed.

The 26-year-old is finding it strange seeing his face on banners around the Lancashire town promoting the season’s third major and appreciates the expectation levels of the locals will be through the roof when he steps on to the first tee on Thursday. He’s keeping his feet on the ground, though, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who witnessed him either winning the 2009 Scottish Open Stroke-Play Championship at Murcar Links or his maiden professional victory in the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles four years later.

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“I think this week it’s going to be an experience for me I’ll never forget,” admitted Fleetwood as he kicked off this week’s media centre interviews. “It’s very rare that you get a tournament this close to home. I know everybody wants to talk about that. It’s a massive privilege to be playing at a tournament so close to home, and it being the Open. Yeah, 
it’s going to be a great week for me no matter what.”

Does being in the same position as Colin Montgomerie found himself in at Royal Troon 12 months ago bring additional pressure in what is only his fourth Open Championship appearance, especially having failed to make it to the weekend thus far? “Not at all,” insisted Fleetwood, who sparked his resurgence by winning the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship earlier in the year before adding the French Open just over a fortnight ago. “You could look at it that way, but that’s putting kind of a wrong spin on it. I’ll have the most support I’ve ever had in my life, from people 
I’ve grown up with, friends, family, you name it. No, I don’t feel extra pressure from it. Obviously, it’s going to be a different experience, for sure, something that I’ve never experienced before. But it will be great to have so many people out there rooting for you. It doesn’t happen all the time when you have that many people all wanting you to do well. So I think it will be nice, and I’m sure, it will make me smile when I get there.”

He was certainly smiling as he recalled how he used to sneak on to Royal Birkdale as a kid, never really imagining that he would be walking the same fairways one day as a genuine contender in golf’s oldest major. “If you live five minutes away, you’re going to try to get on when you can and I bunked on now and again,” he recalled. “You can’t sneak on the places that we used to sneak on anymore, though. The fifth was the place that used to be a lot more open, and it’s got fences
and bushes there now, so that’s gone. You can’t even get on to watch The Open 
anymore. It’s a lot tougher these days.”

It proved tough, of course, for Sergio Garcia to win a major before he finally
made the breakthrough at the 74th attempt in The Masters earlier this year. The Spaniard has a new swagger on the back of that as he now bids to turn a string of consistent performances in this event – his record of ten top-tens includes second-place finishes behind Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007 then Rory McIlroy at Royal Liverpool three years ago – into a victory.

“It’s difficult to say as it’s like asking, who do you love more, your dad or your mum, and I think both are amazing” replied the 37-year-old to being asked if a Claret Jug would mean more to him than a Green Jacket. “At the moment the Green Jacket means more, because I have it, but everybody knows how much I love The Open Championship. I would love to at least have one of them before I kind of hang up the boots and we’re certainly going to give it a shot this week.”

The Spaniards, of course, are on a links roll heading into this event after Jon Rahm won the Irish Open at Portstewart before Rafa Carbrera Bello,
helped by a course-record 64 in the final round, claimed the Scottish Open at Dundonald Links on Sunday.

“Yeah, it would be amazing,” said 
Garcia of a possible title hat-trick this weekend. “It’s been a fun year for Spanish sport with [Gabrine] Muguruza winning Wimbledon and obviously Rafa [Nadal] winning Roland Garros and it’s been great for Spanish golf also. I want to say it’s probably the winningest year we’ve had in Spanish golf, between the PGA Tour [where Rahm also won earlier in the season] and the European Tour. It’s very exciting to see fellow countrymen doing great things, so we’re going to try to keep it as much as possible.”

Next up for Garcia after the Claret Jug joust is a wedding. He’s tying the knot with American Angela Akins next week. “Obviously we’re really excited for next week, but we have something that we’re also extremely excited about this week,” he said, insisting he’s focused on this job at hand.