Tommy Fleetwood ‘very proud’ to finally win Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on sixth attempt

Three days after turning 26, Englishman plays round of his life to clinch title in capital where in five previous appearances, he missed the cut four times, writes John McAuley from National Course.

Tommy Fleetwood lifts the Falcon Trophy after winning the 2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Sunday. David Cannon / Getty Images
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ABU DHABI // Turn 26 on Thursday. Win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Sunday. Hold off some of the world’s best golfers in between.

So Tommy Fleetwood, how has your week been?

“It’s cool,” the Englishman said at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Sunday, moments after sealing a one-stroke victory to end a 1,247-day wait for his second European Tour triumph. “I didn’t really see it coming.”

To be fair, neither had most. Granted, Fleetwood has shown real signs of form during the past six months, and he had finished tied-ninth and tied-third in his final two outings of 2016, but the world No 102 had always struggled in Abu Dhabi.

In five previous appearances, he missed the cut four times. Then, on his back nine on Sunday, and with three major champions in tow in Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer, Fleetwood barely missed a trick.

“Yeah, it was a very good field this week,” he said, heavy on the understatement. “There were some good players chasing.

“I’m very, very proud. I did really just concentrate on my own game and kept going. Thirty-one on the back nine on a Sunday is great, no matter who you are, and I think that’s probably what I’m most proud of over the week. It’s a very big deal to prove yourself against some of the world’s best.”

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Also from Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

■ Johnson: American wants to come back and win title next year

■ Stenson: Swede pleased even as title eludes him for 12th time

■ Numbers: Fleetwood's win, Larrazabal's miss and much more

■ Gallery: Relive final-round action at National Course on Sunday

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Is it not just? Fleetwood was right: his back nine really was world class, contributing to five-under 67, the lowest of the day. Playing in the penultimate group, he had started the day as one of a quintet chasing down overnight leader Tyrrell Hatton, alongside Johnson, the reigning US Open champion, and Kaymer, a three-time winner in Abu Dhabi.

But while Hatton quickly slipped from view, Fleetwood made his charge from the eighth. He birdied there, then chipped in for eagle on the par-5 10th to move to 14-under and within one of Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat at the summit. Fleetwood’s birdie at the 11th drew him level.

The duo soon had Pablo Larrazabal for company, but Fleetwood birdied 16 to hit the front. Holding a one-shot advantage on the final tee, he pulled his tee shot wide left and required relief for his second. With 264 yards to the front, and the pin 44 yards on, Fleetwood struck a superb three-wood that left him a two-putt to set the clubhouse lead on 17-under.

“I was never going to not take the shot on,” Fleetwood said.

From his place in the scorer’s hut, he watched on as Johnson eagled to finish one back. Then Larrazabal left his greenside chip short, meaning the Spaniard, the 2014 champion, had to settle for second alongside the American.

“I tried my best,” said Larrazabal, who chipped in on 14 and holed some impressive putts late on. “I knew that I had to go low. Plus-one after six, I had to go very low the last 12 holes and I’m very proud the way I did.”

Fleetwood, though, would conclude the week with the most gratification. In sealing the Falcon Trophy, he moves around about the coveted top 50 in the world rankings, but most importantly, he has that winning feeling again after three and a half years without it.

“I had a really rough time from July 2015 to July 2016 where I was really struggling with my game,” he said. “Things turned around and I’ve been on an upward trend from August really. And towards the end of the year I had good finishes: British Masters, DP World, Hong Kong. So the next step up after that is to win.”

The victory was very much a team affair. Fleetwood credited a return last year to long-time coach Alan Thompson and to caddie Ian Finnis, too, a long-time pal who took over the bag in July.

“He’s been a massively positive influence,” Fleetwood said. “I can’t give him enough credit for how good he’s been for me.”

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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