Tommy Fleetwood has moved into position after round three at the Open Championship. Dan Davies charts his progress at Royal Portrush
Fleetwood happy to play his part in a ‘very special occasion’
‘It was a very special occasion and a great day to be playing golf,’ said Tommy Fleetwood, wearing a big smile on his face after round three of the Open Championship. ‘I’m happy to be in the mix, to have played my part in it and to have contributed to the atmosphere.
‘I think today is amazing for the sport,’ he continued. ‘The tournament has done itself proud today. It’s shown how great the game is and how good golf is to watch.’
As he spoke, delirious chants of ‘Ole ole ole’ rang around 18th green and the spectator village, transforming the normally reverential Open Championship atmosphere into something closer to a ceilidh. The jubilation had been sparked by Shane Lowry’s extraordinary burst of scoring, which added up to a course record 63 and a big lead lead on 16-under par.
The world number 20 from Southport finds himself four shots back from Lowry, but he had every right to look pleased with himself. He had just gone bogey-free for the second time this week, signing for a round of 66. It was good enough for a place alongside the home favourite in the last group out on Sunday, in what looks set to be apocalyptic weather on the Antrim coast.
Having shot 68, 67, 66, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Fleetwood will need to continue trending in the same direction if he is to have any chance of overhauling the runaway train that is Lowry. And the popular 28-year-old is in no doubt that the vast majority of the crowd will be puling for his opponent, having heard the roars behind him as Lowry boarded the birdie bus, grabbed the wheel and drove it right across the back nine.
‘The atmosphere was just great, I loved it’ enthused Fleetwood, who enjoyed plenty of support from the huge crowds on a perfect day for scoring at Royal Portrush. ‘For or against you, you can’t help appreciate and love what today was and what tomorrow is going to be.’
Sunshine kissed the links and the wind dropped to a whisper, drowned out by the jungle telegraph of cheers that sound-tracked a memorable day of golf in which Lowry and Fleetwood threatened to disappear over the horizon.
The bookmakers had made Fleetwood, who grew up playing the links of England’s north-west coast, the favourite going into round three. The odds spoke of his recent consistency in the game’s biggest events rather than the fact this is only his sixth Open Championship appearance, with his best finish being the tied-12th he recorded last year at Carnoustie.
Fleetwood’s playing partner Lee Westwood, on the other hand, was competing in the tournament for the 25th time, and has finished in the top-five on four occasions.
It was the younger man by 18 years who made the fastest start in the penultimate group out. Fleetwood stroked in a birdie putt of 15 feet on the first hole to take a share of the lead with Lowry and J.B. Holmes on eight under par. The shouts of ‘Go on Tommy’ filled his ears as he marched through a tunnel of outstretched palms to the second tee.
Fleetwood initially seemed to be struggling with his swing. He pulled his tee shot into rough down the left of the second and was unable to make a birdie. Moments later, he scowled at his tee shot at the 3rd.
Another pull into the the rough on left of the 4th, one of the hardest holes on the course, threatened to stall his momentum but his recovery shot was well thought out and expertly executed — fired at a mound to the right of the green which duly brought the ball back round and within birdie range.
The shot seemed to settle Fleetwood, and although he was unable to hole the putt he did go on to make a stress-free birdie on the par-4 5th before launching a massive drive down the par-5 7th to set up another and join the party on 10-under alongside Lowry, JB Holmes and Westwood, who had made three birdies of his own in the first four holes.
But it was Fleetwood who kept pushing as the roars from behind confirmed that Lowry was now finding his groove. On the 10th, which requires a drive into a narrow ribbon of fairway before the hole turns towards an even narrower green, the Englishman found the short grass but was forced to wait as Westwood retrieved his ball from a bush. Unflustered, Fleetwood duly fired in a glorious 9-iron and sank the putt from around eight feet.
Two shots clear of his partner, he was now briefly tied for the lead with Lowry, who had also gone to 11 under with a birdie on the 9th.
Fleetwood has been dialling back from the tee this week, averaging 290 yards for a driving distance ranking of 87th in the field. ‘At times you’re going to have to be aggressive and take the course on. Other times you’re going to have to take what it gives you or lay back,’ he had explained.
On the 11th it was time to attack. He pulled the driver from his bag and unleashed a beauty that whistled over the dogleg to set up a short iron that covered the flag all the way. On this occasion, however, the man ranked 12th in the putting stats after two days was unable to take advantage and the putt hung agonisingly on the lip.
A straightforward birdie on the par-5 12th briefly put him back on level terms with Lowry at 13-under. But as the Irishman sent the home fans potty, Fleetwood was unable to make any further headway. He saved his par on 15 after a weak approach, and was unable to get his drive close enough to the 17th green to set up what should have been a routine birdie.
Asked whether he could believe that he was four shots behind having played so well, Fleetwood remained typically sunny. ‘You have to look at it realistically. I had one of the best rounds of the day and I was bogey-free. Shane just played great and I’m four back. But that’s it, I’m just happy with how I played.’
Fleetwood was generous in his praise of Lowry, and is well aware that he will up against a man who has plenty of experience of playing links golf in the worst the Irish weather is capable of. But he is also very well-versed in the challenges posed by the wind and rain.
‘I feel like I’ve had some of my best rounds in terrible, terrible conditions, where I’ve enjoyed grinding it out,’ he said. Shane Lowry will sleep on a four-shot lead but he will know it is not just the weather he will be fighting tomorrow.