Desert golf in January: clear blue skies under a hot sun and no humidity. It really could not be a lot nicer. And so to the final round yesterday of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where it was nothing like that at all. The fact that the golfers were playing in the desert was never in doubt, as a sand-flecked mist borne by a strong breeze was a pervasive presence on the course, with the sun seldom in sight. That, however, was of no bother to Tommy Fleetwood, who won his fourth European Tour title.
The 27-year-old from Southport (he celebrated his birthday on the second day of the tournament) retained the title he had won over the same course last year, a season in which he finished as winner of the Race to Dubai. He finished this week two shots clear of Ross Fisher with a 22-under-par total of 266, saving the best to last with a closing 65, including playing the back nine in six under par. Earlier in the week Fleetwood had received the Seve Ballesteros Award for being voted Players’ Player of the Year for 2017 by his fellow European Tour professionals. He has no doubt started as he means to go on.
“I was saying from the start of the week,” recalled Fleetwood, “that I’ve never defended. I’ve never come to a tournament as defending champion before. It’s a really strange feeling because you feel quite possessive over your trophy and you don’t really want to give it back. So that’s always been in the back of my mind this week. Luckily enough, I was playing well and I had a chance to win, and the back nine was a very special nine holes. It’s a very, very nice feeling.” Rory McIlroy described Fleetwood’s homeward half of 30, in such testing conditions, as “obscene”.
“Last year, I had had the year of my life by a long, long way on the course.,” Fleetwood added. “Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve talked about, was to make sure that we kept progressing, kept improving.” He seems to be well on the way.
McIlroy himself was trying to win on his first competitive appearance since the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews over three months ago. “I’ve never won on my first start back out,” he had noted earlier in the week. He had almost managed that in South Africa last January but was denied victory after a playoff loss to Graeme Storm. More significantly, that event saw his first serious discomfort from a rib injury that so badly afflicted him last season and has contributed to the fact that he hasn’t won a tournament since 2016.
“I’m really happy with how I played,” he said last evening. “It could have been a little bit better today. I was a little bit scrappy but in the conditions I felt like shooting anything in the 60s would have been a good score. I didn’t quite do that – I shot 70 – but overall I’m really happy how I played this week.”
All considered, then, a tie for third place alongside Matt Fitzpatrick, four shots off the pace, was pretty impressive and it would surely shock no one if he were to win in Dubai this coming week.
You can follow me on Twitter @robrtgreen and also on my other blog: f-factors.com