Tommy Fleetwood is only a goatee beard short of the full musketeer. With shoulder length hair and a twinkle in his eye the 24-year-old Englishman stepped into the lead role vacated by the absent Rory McIlroy and lit up the BMW PGA Championship with the low round of the day, a vibrant 65 that included an albatross as well as an eagle.
Fleetwood is the coming rapier of the European game, a talented amateur who turned pro four years ago and by increments is finding his feet among the elite. His 11-under-par total will see him out in the penultimate group on Sunday alongside Tongchai Jaidee, who closed on 12 under par.
They are chasing Francesco Molinari, the London-based Italian, and An Byeong Hun, the 23-year-old Korean, who lead on 14 under par. When the putter is doing the business, as it has this week with a new, fatter grip, Molinari can sprint clear of any field. But as we saw a year ago when McIlroy started eight shots back and won, a three-shot deficit is well within reach of a young thruster seeking to make a mark.
Enjoying the proximity to greatness, Fleetwood posted a picture on his Twitter feed on Friday warming up next to McIlroy on the range. Though he has one victory on the European Tour, the Johnny Walker Championship at Gleneagles two years ago, his most significant global exposure has come this year at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in March, where he struggled, and the WGC-Cadillac Match Play this month, where he progressed to the quarter-finals.
The step up in class and experience at Doral proved decisive. Battling a familiar flaw, a hook off the tee, in the company of Henrik Stenson and Graeme McDowell during practice, his difficulties told him he needed help to progress to the next level, which led him to the door of coaching guru to the stars, Pete Cowen. The difference has been night and day, producing a run to the quarter-finals behind McIlroy at the Match Play, and now this.
“The stuff we’ve done with Pete has been excellent, and it’s made a massive difference,” Fleetwood said. “At Doral, I played practice rounds with Henrik and Graeme. I was playing terrible. I knew that I couldn’t compete with them at the time.
“So any time you feel like that, you have to do something about it. I had spoken to Pete a few times and I was lucky enough when I asked, he said he would work with me. He’s given 50 years of his life to the game and it’s a privilege to work with him. You have to make the most of it.”
He did that and more at the par-5 fourth with a first career albatross and the 192nd recorded on the European Tour. “It was a really good drive, and then we had 198 to the pin, a little down breeze and a little off the right. It was pretty much a normal 7 iron. I hit the perfect shot six, seven, eight feet right of the pin and luckily it spun left and went in.”
There was no magic from the European Tour’s established stars on their return from the United States. Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood all start the final day on one over par.
Seeking to reach the world’s top 50 to secure automatic qualification for the US Open and the Open Championship, Donald had hoped for the sort of day enjoyed by Fleetwood, but endured the opposite, requiring a birdie at the last to limit the damage to a five-over-par 77.
Westwood and McDowell traded birdies and bogeys, three and four respectively, to post level par scores of 72. Seven players start the final day of the European Tour’s premier championship within six of the lead.
Ian Poulter, who snubbed Wentworth in favour of the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Texas, appeared justified in opting to play the PGA Tour this week, reaching the turn in a share of the lead on ten under par.Reuse content