Tommy Fleetwood is unequivocal. The Open is the one golf tournament he wants to win above all others – and this year would the perfect time to do it.
Ever since he cheekily hopped over the fence by Royal Birkdale’s fifth tee as a seven-year-old and watched his heroes practice for the 1998 Championship, Fleetwood’s mind has been focused on the Claret Jug.
He can reel off every winner going back to John Daly’s St Andrews triumph in 1995. Tiger’s 2000 masterclass, Muirfield’s four-way play-off, Padraig’s double, Stenson’s record and Shane Lowry’s Portrush party are all burned in his mind - especially Lowry’s.
Although he is yet to get his hands on golf’s most prestigious prize, Fleetwood’s Open career has been one of exponential growth.
The world number 33 missed the cut at his first three attempts: Royal Liverpool 2014, St Andrews 2015 and Royal Troon 2016.
But just weeks after he finished fourth at the U.S. Open in 2017, he returned to Royal Birkdale and the town he grew up in to make the cut by one and eventually finish an impressive tied-27th.
At Carnoustie a year later, he was just one stroke back at the halfway point but faded slightly at the weekend. He finished tied-12th, on the outside looking in as Molinari, Woods, Spieth and McIlroy went at it on a crazy Sunday. Still, another year, another step closer.
Then came 2019. Fleetwood calls it a privilege to have played alongside his great friend Lowry as the Irishman ripped up Royal Portrush to the tune of just 63 strokes and basked in the limelight as thousands of locals chanted his name. A day later, Lowry became Champion Golfer of the Year and Fleetwood finished six shots back in second.
So, to 2021 and Royal St George’s. The Sandwich course was England’s first to host The Open and has crowned 12 different Champion Golfers but no Englishman since Reg Whitcombe in 1938.
Indeed, England has not had a Champion Golfer since Sir Nick Faldo’s Muirfield masterclass in 1992 – just a year after Fleetwood was born.
To find the last English winner on an English course, you have to go all the way back to Tony Jacklin’s 1969 success at Royal Lytham & St Annes. So, when Fleetwood says this would be a great time to achieve his dream, he’s right.
“In my career, I have had two dreams since I was six or seven and winning The Open is one of them,” he said on The Open Podcasts.
“When it comes to the end of my career, if I have won The Open it will go a long way to me having satisfaction with my career.
“It is the ultimate to me and if I won The Open and never hit a golf shot again, I would have achieved something very special to me.
“I can’t state it strongly enough. It is the one I want to win and there’s not another event that comes close. It sits on a pedestal, and I hope one day I get it. This year would be a good year to do it.
“There’s nothing quite like it. The history, the crowds, the conditions at times. Our home Open just happens to be the biggest event in golf. It is the one I would love to win more than any other and anything else is just nice to add onto it.”
Fleetwood is far from the only home contender. Tyrrell Hatton is currently ranked inside the world’s top 10, Paul Casey has managed top-five finishes at the last two US PGA Championships, Justin Rose is a major winner, Olympic champion and former world number one, and Lee Westwood is enjoying a brilliant renaissance at the age of 48.
Fleetwood’s own form has tailed off slightly but he is now at home at the majors and expects to be dialled-in from the first tee.
“It takes time in your progression. Some people set off like a house on fire and never look back but I found majors difficult at first to find my rhythm,” he said.
“There’s a lot going on, especially at The Open, and I missed the cut in six of my first seven majors. Practice days are busy, everything is bigger and more spread out and the courses are tougher.
“It took me a bit of time to get there. There is nothing wrong with going through that. Now I turn up and know what I need to do. It’s just experience and comfort.”
Fleetwood has not won since late 2019, due in part to Covid-19. The pandemic paused the 2020 season and delayed The 149th Open by 12 months.
Fleetwood spent the first part of lockdown with his family, but he couldn’t escape highlights of The 148th Open – even if he wanted to.
It appeared to line up perfectly for Fleetwood, who shot 68 on the first day to trail by just two strokes and followed that up with a 67 on Friday to close within one.
Playing in the penultimate group on day three, he shot a brilliant 66 to reach 12 under. In any other year, that would almost certainly have earned him the 54-hole lead but memories of his round are lost in the haze of Lowry’s sumptuous 63.
The Irishman led by four ahead of the final round and Sunday saw the heavens open and the wind roll in to make a low-scoring charge all-but impossible. Fleetwood tried with all his might but came up short, as Lowry’s 72 saw the local favourite home.
“It hurt [watching it back] and I knew where it was going to hurt the most, which was on 15 when I made a double bogey. It was done,” he said.
“I write stuff down all the time and at the end of 2019 I wrote down some of my highlights, and the Saturday when Shane went so low was unreal.
“I would have loved it to be me but you could not have picked a better winner for where it was. I finished runner-up, my best finish in The Open. I was close but didn’t get to my dream but hopefully I can. It was an amazing week.”
Fleetwood only need look to his boyhood hero Ernie Els for inspiration. The South Africa finished T2 at The Open twice but persevered and eventually became a two-time Champion Golfer.
The pandemic might have delayed Fleetwood’s next attempt. But as Els has proven, good things do come to those who wait.