At Hoylake, golf reminds us being the fan favorite only goes so far
HOYLAKE, England — It was all aligning for the man they call Tommy-lad. Mr. Fleetwood, as he is also known, or Mr. Tommy, as Brian Harman called him late Saturday night, found himself in the final pairing Saturday at the Open Championship, nearly every soul on the property pulling for him.
He knew it, too. It would be impossible to not know it. Golf fans speak with their voices but also with their feet, and every grandstand that Fleetwood has played near this week has had this rolling thunder of giddy feet coursing from it.
As if there might still be a doubt on who the fan favorite of this tournament was, Fleetwood tweeted out a plea Friday evening — a photo of him and his Lancashire caddie, grinning ear to ear. The caption: “Louder tomorrow for the local lads please”. He’s got great manners.
The hordes out at Royal Liverpool certainly wouldn’t be as polite, and perhaps that’s the motive behind the tweet. In the NFL, a home crowd is worth approximately 2.7 points. In the NBA, home teams score 3% more points than they do on the road. But in golf? We were bound to find out.
Fleetwood’s flock grew with each hole he played, almost like a conga line, picking people up as he came through. Whenever he hit an approach shot, a game of telephone trickled through the crowd. If anyone said Come on Tommy! near the green, it signaled everyone who couldn’t see that they could join in once again. Some chanted the fight song of his favorite football club, Everton FC. “Ye blue” or “Ya Toffee” or “Ya lad” all applied to the same man. Others rooted against Harman, an inevitable though frowned-upon aspect of golf viewing.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t hear some things that weren’t super nice today towards me,” Harman said later. “I hear them, but at the same time, I don’t try to let that influence the decision I’m about to make.”
Of course. But what did they say?
The string of Come on Tommy! lines was so relentless that it was rather jarring when, on the 5th green, we finally heard a Come on Brian!
He had earned it, though, sniping the green with a 3-wood from 239 yards. It led to a two-putt birdie that he later said “righted the ship.”
That quote tells you something. Harman was holding tight to the steering wheel after dropping two shots on his first four holes. His five-shot lead shrunk to just two. These moments happen in golf rather frequently. Sometimes pro golfers shrivel in the weight of the moment. And other times they snap out of it. It helps when the fan-favorite in pursuit steps on the gas a bit, and that just didn’t happen. Fleetwood’s caddie, Ian Finnis, offered a particularly local explanation for it. “We were like Everton,” he said. “Couldn’t score.” (For the non-soccer fans, EFC scored the second-least goals in the Premier League last season.)
Fleetwood’s best stuff took place on those first four holes where Harman wobbled, resulting in just a single birdie, the only birdie on his scorecard all day. Everyone of age seemed well-lubricated, so the chants continued, of course, but zero putts of significance fell.
It made Saturday feel like one big reminder that this individual game, at the highest level, doesn’t ultimately lean toward fan favorites. It leans toward steely play, gritty pars, two-putt birdies, and the plodding, impenetrable nature of a 4.5-hour slog through the wind and rain. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If you don’t, you don’t. Fleetwood has had a lot of it this week, but Harman has had more. On Thursday afternoon and Friday morning and late again on Saturday. Wyndham Clark had it a month ago, when he conquered all the single-name guys — Rory, Rickie and Scottie — that the fans favored at the U.S. Open. Ask Cam Smith how his birdie putts silenced the pro-McIlroy crowd at the Old Course a year ago.
Fleetwood can’t slap the floor and play defense against Harman’s birdie putts. He can’t pin him back against his goal line and a raucous student section. Fan support is good and all, but they stay behind the ropes for a reason.
On the 18th, as is tradition at Open Championships, fans tower over you from a ringed set of bleachers. In an alternate universe, the string of Come on Tommys from that arena would have been audible all the way up in Southport, 20 miles away, where Fleetwood honed his swing as a six-year-old. Instead, another 25-foot birdie look crept to the hole but never really had a chance. Harman stepped up and calmly rolled in an 8-footer for his own par to end the day’s play. Everyone cheered, because that’s what British golf fans do when they watch great golf. Fleetwood flung his putter at his bag and went to shake the man’s hand.