Standing just off the 18th green at the DP World Tour Championship on Thursday, Tommy Fleetwood’s already-slim chances of holding onto his Race to Dubai crown seemed set to go from negligible to nearly run.
Europe’s reigning No 1 was on the fringe at the par-5 in three, with playing partner and Race leader, Francesco Molinari, on the short stuff and looking at birdie.
As Fleetwood later highlighted, from his position he was staring at getting down in three, giving him a concluding bogey and an opening 71. And with it, leave him on 1-under par a quarter of the way through the final event on this year’s European Tour.
Molinari, meanwhile, had a clear sight at a 66, to pull him alongside Jordan Smith and Adrian Otaegui at the top of the leaderboard. But then Fleetwood rammed in his putt for birdie, and Molinari took three to get home.
So at the end of Day 1 in the race for the Race to Dubai title, Fleetwood sits on 3-under, and Molinari on -4.
For Fleetwood, who needs to win at Jumeirah Golf Estates and for his good pal to finish worse than fifth, there is life in the year-long scrap yet.
“As long as the year is, you come into this week still with a chance of Race to Dubai,” Fleetwood said. “One round down, and we still have a chance.
“As long as our head's above water for that, we'll be happy and keep going. On the last, easily that's down in three. You hole it and you feel so much better.”
Fleetwood’s fight helped the mood. He picked up two shots coming home in a bogey-free 69. From 12 onwards, he said, it was a real grind.
“It was more really good battling,” Fleetwood said. “Sometimes those are the rounds that maybe win you golf tournaments at the end of the week.”
Good for him, then, because that is what is required.
Yet Molinari remains very much in the driving seat. The reigning British Open champion, his lead in the Race to Dubai is not just healthy, but thriving: it is more than one million points.
On Thursday, he was 6-under through 14 holes. But two three-putts in the final four holes pulled him back towards Fleetwood.
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It was nothing to do with pressure, the Italian maintained, rather the result of a long campaign that includes a first major and making history at the Ryder Cup. Or, as he put it earlier this week, a “dream season”.
“It's the end of a very long and tiring season, so it's normal not to have maybe a ton of energy,” Molinari said. “Obviously I'm not trying to think too much about [the Race to Dubai]. I'm trying to focus on the shot at hand and go hole-by-hole, shot-by-shot, and do the best that I can.
“And then today, being the first day, obviously you can have a very poor round and get out of the game. But it was too early, really, to feel any pressure. I'm sure, depending on all the different scenarios on Sunday, it might be different.”
Ironically, perhaps having his Ryder Cup sidekick in tow actually eases the tension.
“It was still fun,” Molinari said. “It's only Thursday, so there's so many things that can happen. It's really too early. But we had fun."
“It's great. We don't get in each other's way,” he said. "It was a pleasure being out with him today and he was doing great. He put a great score together until a couple at the end.
It's always great being out with a friend.”