There’s a certain kind of romance to being “unknown”; of having the ability to drift into a world or town or circle and dictate how you’re perceived. It’s the magic dust sprinkled on movies like The Natural, Rocky, and Hoosiers: a person emerging seemingly out of nowhere and immediately rising to the top.
The transition from “unknown” to “known” can take many forms. It can come on one play, like David Tyree’s Super Bowl helmet catch; over the course of three months, like Jeremy Lin’s 2012 ascendance with the Knicks; or in one weekend on a 652-acre grassy expanse located 45 minutes outside Milwaukee.
One year ago, the then-26-year-old Tommy Fleetwood made his mark on one of golf’s biggest stages, finishing fourth in just his second-ever appearance at the U.S. Open. He secured his PGA Tour card on the back of that performance, and while the Southport native was well-known throughout Europe and domestic golf-nerd circles, his shaggy hair, goofy grin, and wild driving abilities forced more casual American fans to pay attention. As stars like Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Bubba Watson fell apart on a course that was supposed to play to their bomber-like strengths, Fleetwood artfully maneuvered around Erin Hills with four par-or-better rounds, including back-to-back days where he played in pressure-packed penultimate groupings with the eventual champion, Brooks Koepka. He slayed the longest course in major championship history; what could be next?
Writing about his final-round grouping with Koepka, American outlets referred to Fleetwood as a “neophyte” and Koepka’s “waifish, long-haired playing partner.” Fleetwood took it all in stride and managed to stay loose going into the weekend. He birdied his opening hole on Saturday, sunk a 21-foot birdie on no. 8, and even as Justin Thomas was shooting up the leaderboard in front of him—Thomas would finish the day with a record-breaking 63—Fleetwood kept pace. He made Protracer magic as he set up a birdie at 12, chipped out of a bunker to within a foot of the hole at 14, knocked it out of the trampled fescue to create a birdie chance at 15, and, had it not been for a poor bogey on the final hole, he would have been paired with Brian Harman in Sunday’s final group.
But Fleetwood wasn’t always the player who could say he felt “in control” before a pivotal final round, or the player with the ability to lock in his mental game. In fact two years ago, at one of the biggest tournaments on the European circuit, Fleetwood’s mind was so raw that he couldn’t even hit the ball off the first tee.
For about five months in 2016, Fleetwood’s entire career seemed to be in flux. At 25, he had developed the yips, that mysterious, spasm-inducing force that eats away at athletes until they can no longer perform even the simplest of tasks in their respective fields.
“My coach Alan Thompson didn’t say it at the time,” Fleetwood told The New York Times earlier this year, “but he questioned if I could ever come out of it, that maybe I was too far gone.
“It was demoralizing. … My confidence was so low.”
Fleetwood wasn’t used to failing. He’d been blowing away instructors since he was 8 years old, and he cut his teeth sneaking onto Royal Birkdale—his hometown course and the site of last year’s Open Championship—after hours with his father. Fleetwood won the prestigious English Amateur Championship in 2010 at age 19 and turned pro shortly after. But by the European Tour’s 2016 BMW PGA Championship, his game was a wreck.
The Mayo Clinic reports that the yips most commonly occur when golfers putt, but in Fleetwood’s case, he lost the most signature part of his game—his drive.
“My driver is my strongest club—it’s what my game kind of revolves around,” Fleetwood told the Times. “I’d yip and stand up and the ball would go 80 yards right. You’re always nervous and you’re tense, and you know it’s coming. It doesn’t matter … how many balls you hit on the range, or how well you hit on the range. It’s something that you can’t control—your body is doing it.”
Fleetwood’s world ranking dropped 126 places in under a year, and after making the cut at the BMW—something Fleetwood called his “best achievement of the year to that point”—he missed the cut at three of his next four events. He eventually teamed up with Thompson, whom he’d worked with before, at the Heswall Golf Club in the U.K., and his best friend, Ian Finnis, began caddying for him for the first time since Fleetwood joined the European Tour. Together they came up with a plan to get him back into form.
Fleetwood’s game is a mix of surprising power and artful control. When his drive went down, Fleetwood and Thompson doubled down on the technical aspects of his game, fine-tuning the parts he could still manage and trying to lock those down for the time when his signature shot returned. Among other remedies, he began doing 36-hole practice rounds instead of nine, and he downloaded the Headspace app and used that for guided meditation. It wasn’t an immediate turnaround, but by January 2017, Fleetwood was beating the likes of Dustin Johnson in Abu Dhabi; he’d recorded two second-place finishes in the months leading up to the U.S. Open; he won the French Open two weeks later at Le Golf National, the site of this year’s Ryder Cup; and by November of that year he was crowned the top European golfer after winning the Race to Dubai.
He now sits in the top 25 on tour in strokes gained around the green, and though his putting hasn’t been quite so clean this year, the return of Fleetwood’s drive has helped him rise into the top 15 in overall strokes gained.
There are plenty of guys on tour who get more distance off the tee than Fleetwood—Johnson, McIlroy, Watson, and Justin Thomas are a few of the stalwarts at the top of that list. But what makes Fleetwood’s drive so effective is his accuracy. As he told Golf Digest earlier this year, that stems from the way he holds his club and the specific club he uses.
“I grip down on the club,” Fleetwood said. “This makes it easier to control the clubface. I also play a driver that’s 45 inches, a little shorter than standard. Again, shorter equals straighter. However, those two things also hurt distance.”
This strategy has worked for him—despite being 31st on tour in distance (five spots behind the fused-back wonder, Tiger Woods), he’s ninth in strokes gained off the tee. That’s led to seven top-10 finishes already on the season, and 12 top-20s in just 16 tournaments across the PGA and European circuits. He also recorded his first top-20 finish at the Masters earlier this year, and went 22-under in Abu Dhabi in January for his only win so far this season.
Fleetwood’s turnaround in the past 18 months has been nothing short of spectacular, and it was the taste of contention at last year’s U.S. Open that had golf fans clamoring for more—and put Fleetwood on the map in the major championship discussion.
Fleetwood is still looking for his signature victory, the one that puts him firmly in the league of his European counterparts like McIlroy, Justin Rose, and Sergio Garcia. His success at Erin Hills brought him extra attention going into last year’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, but he shot an opening 76 and finished outside the top 25.
This year, he’s been balancing both European Tour and PGA Tour obligations, spending more time playing in the U.S., and setting himself up for an end-of-the-year run. And, of course, he’s been preparing to top his performance from last year’s U.S. Open.
Shinnecock Hills, the site of this year’s tournament, has a significantly different layout from Erin Hills. It’s not nearly as long, but the course’s standard windy conditions are expected to up the difficulty, despite wider fairways than past Shinnecock tournaments. (To be fair, wind was also supposed to be a factor in Wisconsin, but it never appeared, leading to record low scoring.) Despite those added elements, Fleetwood seems to think Shinnecock will suit his game well.
“I enjoy a test where it’s just grinding away at you all day, you never get to switch off,” Fleetwood told Sky Sports this week. “I think the good thing is that [the U.S. Open is] at a different course to last year. A lot of times when you’ve played well the year before at a tournament or at a course and you come back and the expectations are so high, if you don’t quite start or play the way you want to it can get frustrating.”
Fleetwood won’t come into this U.S. Open with the same underdog quality that carried him through last year’s run—his current odds to win sit at 30-to-1, the same as 2016 Open Championship winner Henrik Stenson and slightly better than reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed. His game is a bit more trusted, and his reputation on American soil is a bit more known—he has his performance at Erin Hills to thank for that.
Just two years removed from barely being able to drive the ball and a year removed from his best-ever major performance, Fleetwood hopes to be in the hunt once again this weekend. And if that happens, he’ll do it as a much more familiar face for American golf fans.