Tommy Fleetwood is leading his home Open. Now comes the hard part
HOYLAKE, England — Just before 3 p.m. here at Royal Liverpool, Rory McIlroy was headed to the 1st tee. And everyone was waiting for that tee time, no? 2:59 p.m. off the 1st. Last week’s winner. The global face of the sport. The man whose face is on the RLGC magazine. Before he got there, though, McIlroy made a quick detour in the direction of Clare Fleetwood.
“Come on Tommy-lad,” McIlroy said with a faux British accent, leaning in as he walked by Tommy’s wife. Everyone was waiting for that McIlroy tee time, but even Rory knew why they had been wound into an early frenzy Thursday. It was Tommy-lad. The man raised in Southport, 20 miles from here as the Liver bird flies, is leading the Open Championship through 18 holes.
It’s much too early to paint across the facade of this Open with the charming narrative of a native son winning in his homeland, but it’d be difficult to script a better start. Six birdies, one bogey. A 5-foot-10-incher on the 18th that dropped for par and 66.
“If you look back, he’s missed a few of those,” Fleetwood’s caddie Ian Finnis said. “Missed a 2-footer in the 1st round of the PGA. I remember everything. And he does as well.
“It’s nice when you hole a little 5-footer at the last. People don’t realize how big those putts, par-saves, are.”
Fino, as Finnis is known, is just as local as Fleetwood, if not more. He’s sleeping in his own bed this week. His family gets to watch Dad do work in person, not just on the telly. He even played golf Monday night at his home club, West Lancashire, up the coast. An evening break from the mayhem of looping for the local favorite, who he’s known since Tommy-lad was a wee lad.
“I am one of them, one of the guys that’s out there,” Fleetwood said of his Scouse brethren who shook the bleachers after his 26-foot birdie putt dropped on 16. “I’m a fan of the game. I’m from this area. Yes, I feel at home, and to feel that support, it means a lot.”
McIlroy knows the feeling. He’s supported on every golf course he plays on, but it was never bigger than when the 2019 Open visited Northern Ireland, his home. He tensed up during the Thursday of that soggy week and hooked his first tee ball out of bounds — with an iron in hand — en route to a quadruple bogey. He shot 79 that day and basically ended his championship right there. When he made a ferocious sprint for the cutline with a Friday 65, they sang his name into the fading sunlight. It brought McIlroy to tears.
Just last week, TV cameras found Bob MacIntyre wiping tears from his eyes in the immediate moments after shooting 64 Sunday at his home Open, the Scottish. He made birdie on the toughest hole on the property and thought he had won. The crowd egged him on all afternoon. Even Mother Nature was as Scottish as could be, blowing 40 mph. At 14 under, it was all smiles in the scoring tent. Then McIlroy crashed the party.
“I was in so much control, [the crowd] wasn’t a problem,” MacIntyre recalled Thursday afternoon. “I remember the Old Course last year, coming down the stretch, needing pars to make the cut … That was probably the one time that I’ve really felt like the home crowd was getting to me because I was wanting it that bad that I felt almost like I was letting them down.”
Therein lies the crux of what remains for Fleetwood. It’s early. The first quarter is over, but the home fans are already feeling it. Fleetwood gets a 24-hour rest between rounds and then comes the second quarter. If it goes well, a longer break and then the third. It builds and builds. Pressure grows and grows. That’s what the 2019 Open was like after McIlroy’s missed cut. Northern Ireland’s favorite lad receded and Ireland’s best golfer stepped forward, chants of Ro-ry transforming easily into Low-ry. A few days later, Shane Lowry sang Irish folk songs up on a stage with his grandmother, back in his hometown of Clara, the Claret Jug in his hands.
An important result of all that home Open magic hangs just inside the front doors of the clubhouse at Royal Portrush: a halting watercolor painting of Lowry’s final approach into the 72nd hole. The scene is straight out of a golf movie we’ve all seen before. The navy wrap-around bleachers, the golden scoreboards, the international medley of flapping flags up top and the cameramen down below. The Irish boy won Northern Ireland’s Open, seemingly uniting an entire island in golf adoration, if only for a day. In the bottom right corner of that painting stand two men, one in a black-and-white speckled polo and the other in a blue jumper and red caddie bib. That was Tommy Fleetwood and Ian Finnis, of course, in the final pairing, remembering everything.