One shot shy: Tommy Fleetwood’s historic, heartbreaking final-round 63

June 18, 2018

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Eight feet, eight inches. That was the length of the putt Tommy Fleetwood faced at the 18th green on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Shinnecock Hills, where the course had finally yielded — particularly to Fleetwood. Seventeen-and-a-half glistening holes had gotten him to just inside nine feet for a chance to break the U.S. Open single-round scoring record and post a 72-hole total of 281 — a total that would matter later.

Fleetwood and his caddie Ian Finnis inspected the uphill putt carefully. “I think it’s inside the hole,” Finnis said. Fleetwood agreed. He admired the line one last time, exhaled and struck the putt, starting it left-center and sending it towards the cup, towards history. But the pace, or the line, or the little hop it took two-thirds of the way betrayed him, and the ball rolled just low of the hole, a tap-in for 63 and solo second place at the second major of the year.

“I actually hit the putt I wanted to, but it was so steep, that green, it was a bit slower than what I thought,” Fleetwood said afterwards. He accepted congratulations on the finish, but with a postscript: “Yeah, but I wanted 62.”

Plenty preceded the putt at the last, of course. There was a high, towering six-iron from 196 yards that got him staring at such a mouth-watering putt. There were the four consecutive back-nine birdies he’d tallied, and the four front-nine birdies, too. There was the 15-shot improvement from Saturday, when Fleetwood rallied over the last five holes just to post a 78 that appeared to take him out of contention.

“The one you look at is the putt on the last, obviously,” he said. “But I shot seven under today. I shot the lowest round in U.S. Open history, really — tied. I did a lot this week.”

Entering the day, Fleetwood was nowhere to be found on the leaderboard, six shots back of the lead, with 22 players and two-and-a-half hours separating him from the final group. No matter; Fleetwood wasted little time in chipping away at the lead. He rained in a 70-footer for birdie at the long par-3 2nd, then added a birdie at 3, and another at 6, and another at 7.

The crowds began to flock from across the course mid-way through the back nine, feeling the magnetic pull of the floppy-haired Fleetwood, extra-informed fans aided by their smartphone scoreboards and complimentary radio headsets (a must!).

He poured in a ridiculous sequence of birdies midway through the back nine: 17 feet on 12. Kick-in on 13. 21 feet from the fringe at 14. And then nearly 30 feet at 15, a putt that he walked in with a putter raise, a fist pump, and a little howl to the growing group of spectators.

The soft-spoken, shaggy-maned, jam-band-looking Fleetwood (who Dan Jenkins once perfectly congratulated for being “low guitarist” at the Masters) had begun attracting groupies left and right; despite endless heckles at the likes of Ian Poulter, the Long Island crowd was fully embracing a Brit at its national championship.

“I was surprised,” said playing partner Russell Henley. “I didn’t know if there was something I didn’t know about him or what, but people were screaming for him a lot and it just got louder and louder throughout the round — it was pretty fun.”

The first sign of nerves cropped up at the 16th green, where his birdie putt rolled dead on line but stopped two full rotations short of the hole. He got a good look at 17, too, ultimately missing from 20 feet, and put a charge into his tee shot down the center at the 18th. and then hit a high, towering draw directly at the flag, leaving himself inside 10 feet for birdie and 62 and plenty more. As he strode up towards the final green, the grandstands erupted: “Fleet-Wood! Fleet-Wood!” He doffed his Nike cap in their direction. “The fans have always been great with me. So I’m lucky and grateful in that respect, that they’ve always been so good. This week was like on another level, especially today. As the round went on, more and more people gathered,” he said. “Walking up 18 was very special, really.”

After he tapped out, all Fleetwood could do was wait. He’d teed off at 12:01 p.m.; Tony Finau and Daniel Berger had gone off last at 2:34. But the only player that mattered turned out to be Brooks Koepka, the ultimate champion from the penultimate pairing. Fleetwood retreated to the player dining area to watch with his wife and infant child, Frankie. “I had a sandwich, I watched the golf, I felt fine,” he said. “I always felt like I was just one shot shy, and then Brooks kept giving me, like, a little bit of hope — and then nailing a putt to stab you in the stomach.”

He played with Frankie and chatted with his wife Clare as Koepka saved bogey at 11, and par at 12, and par at 14, maintaining his one-shot advantage over Fleetwood even as Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and the rest of the field faded from relevance. It had become Koepka vs. Fleetwood’s posted score of 282 now. When he holed out on 16 — for birdie and a two-shot lead — Fleetwood reluctantly headed to the driving range, knowing it was unlikely he’d be headed for the first edition of the U.S. Open’s reimagined playoff. “The worst thing that could happen is if something did happen and then I wasn’t really ready,” Fleetwood said.

He hit balls for a while and messed around with different types of pitch shots at the short game area as Clare kept tabs on the tournament. When Koepka nestled his par putt inside a foot at the last, Clare called over to Finnis. He looked up. “That it?” Finnis asked. He gave a wave to Fleetwood, who’d been resigned to the fact and handed over his wedge with little more than a shrug.

Don’t weep for Fleetwood. For one thing, there’s that runner-up $1.3 million consolation prize he’s taking home. There’s also the growing assurance that he’s well-equipped to play with the very best in the world. The fact that the final margin was that single shot — that final nine-footer or any other throughout the 72 holes — may sting, but the twinkle-eyed Englishman knows he’ll be back in contention. Nor was perspective on the moment lost on Fleetwood.

“I mean, essentially everything off the course is what matters — wife, baby, is what matters and good health,” he said, glancing in Clare’s direction, reflecting on a particularly memorable first Father’s Day. “Golf is all just a bonus, at the end of the day. It’s where our dreams kind of lie.”