The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship began with a bad break – the world No. 2 Rory McIlroy having to withdraw with a rib injury – and it ended with Tommy Fleetwood finding a marvellous way to celebrate his 26th birthday just three days after it had passed.
The Englishman sealed the deal with a birdie four at the final hole, although his chip-in for an eagle at the previous par-five, the 10th, had set him seriously in motion. Birdies followed at the 11th and 16th and when he came to the last he needed a birdie to leave his closest pursuers, Pablo Larrazabal of Spain and Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand, in need of eagles to tie. Fleetwood tugged his tee shot and required a drop from a cart path. Facing nearly 300 yards to the flag, he smote a 3-wood to within 40 feet of the cup. Employing his idiosyncratic ‘claw’ putting grip, he duly made his four. His rivals couldn’t make their threes.
“I had a really hard time from July 2015 to July last year where I really struggled with my game,” he said, referring to a period when his game had gone to pot. “I thought maybe my second win would come sooner to be honest. [His first was in 2013.] It’s been a massive comeback.” He came home in 31 – “[doing that] on the back nine on Sunday is great, no matter who you are,” he correctly pointed out – which enabled him to prevail over a strong field that included the Open champion, Henrik Stenson, and a cast of other notables.
Fleetwood won by a shot from Larrazabal and the reigning US Open champion, Dustin Johnson. DJ opened with a 72, promptly switched putters and produced a 68, then followed that with a 64. Hey presto – he was in the last group on Sunday. The most bizarre aspect of his rounds, given the prodigious distances he hits the ball, was that on the 12 par-five holes he’d played to that point he’d parred 11 of them, the exception being the 8th on Saturday which he’d eagled. On Sunday he birdied the 8th and parred the other two prior to the 18th, where he hit an iron from 286 yards – yes, an iron from 286 – to 20 feet and made the putt for an eagle. It was the only one of any length he’d made all day. What would Larrazabal and Aphibarnrat have given for that?
Or for Martin Kaymer’s? Two years ago in Abu Dhabi, the German had led the eventual winner, Gary Stal, by ten shots with 13 holes to play before collapsing in a manner utterly unbefitting a double-major champion and a man who in 2012 had holed the putt that retained the Ryder Cup for Europe. This year he opened up with two 66s despite not having played a tournament for seven weeks and was in the mix until bogeys at 9 and 10 on Sunday. His eagle finish tied him for fourth, two behind the victor.
“I kept thinking [if I kept] knocking on the door, the win would come,”said Fleetwood. “I didn’t really think it would be this week. It just shows a lot can happen in golf.”
Indeed. As has been said before, probably approaching something like a billion times, it’s a funny old game.
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