"There’s a certain moment on a golf course, whether it’s a high moment or a low moment, when you feel the crowd live that moment with you – you feel it and you feed off it"
riday 28 September 2018: Le Golf National, France. Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed have just won the ninth and tenth to take them into the lead. Francesco Molinari putts on the 11th and again on the 12th. All square. Six holes to play.
As England’s Tommy Fleetwood and his Italian Ryder Cup partner, Molinari, are walking down the 15th, word gets back that the other three matches have finished. All three have gone to the United States. Fleetwood lines up a 25-footer on the 16th. It’s his son's first birthday. Fluff this and the outlook is bleak. The ball finds the hole and suddenly Fleetwood and Molinari – Moliwood, as the press has affectionately labelled Europe’s BBFs (their families holidayed together in The Bahamas just before the tournament) – go from two-down to one-up.
The momentum shifts. Fleetwood and Molinari take the game 3-1, help inspire a comeback that morphs into a whitewash and become the first European partnership to win four out four matches in Ryder Cup history. Three days later, the duo's tongue-in-cheek, morning-after-the-week-before victory-video rightly goes viral...
“You don’t see the same emotions in a regular tournament that come out on a Ryder Cup on a Friday morning,” says Fleetwood, who was recently announced as TAG Heuer's latest sporting ambassador.
Ahead of this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship – a tournament he won in 2017 and 2018 – the 30-year-old, European Number 5 (and World Number 19) talks the effects of lockdown, shooting the joint-second-lowest score in Major championship history (the US Open, 2018), and how TAG Heuer’s golfing app can inject some fun into your game.
Hello Tommy. You tied for second place at last year’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. How are you feeling about going one better this year?
Yeah, it’s funny, Abu Dhabi always comes as the first event of the season and you’re never sure how it’s going to go. It’s a strange one because you’ve had quite a bit of time off; you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen. For the first few years I struggled around the course here, but then I turned up in 2017 and won – and won again in 2018. I ended up having really good seasons those two years – it really does set you up for the rest of year.
Has does playing in the Middle East compare to playing elsewhere?
I’ve grown to feel comfortable in Abu Dhabi and the Middle East. We should always see a golf course as a golf course. Things don’t change. The clubs are the same, the ball is the same. But different places do give you different feelings. One of the things is how popular golf is over here now. There’s a lot of golf courses and they are always really, really busy. It feels very ‘golfy’ when you come here. You get a lot of golf fans that come and watch.
How will you look back at 2020, professionally and privately?
Professionally, it was a difficult year. When I came back after lockdown, I didn’t really perform how I would have liked. I was over in America a lot and I struggled with my game a bit, it kind of flickered on and off for the remainder of the year. In reality, it wasn’t that bad but you always set high standards for yourself.
Personally, the biggest thing for me was being with my family in the UK during lockdown. Since I was 16, I’ve travelled all over the world for weeks on end. Then, all of a sudden, I had this time where I didn’t have to feel like I had to be preparing for something. Frankie is three, he’s growing up. I got to sleep in my own bed for weeks on end. But when I started travelling again being away from them didn’t feel natural anymore. That was the biggest thing I struggled with all year. Of course, my problems are minuscule compared to other peoples’.
How different has it been playing without spectators? Is there less pressure playing without the presence of fans?
There’s a certain moment on a golf course, whether it’s a high moment or a low moment, when you feel the crowd live that moment with you – you feel it and you feed off it. You hole a great putt or you hit a great shot and all of a sudden the crowd’s in it with you, you get pumped. Without crowds, it’s just you dealing with yourself, which is kind of easier, for sure. But I miss the crowds. I love that part of the sport – living and breathing those special moments with everyone.
How do you rate Europe’s chances in the 2021 Ryder Cup?
Very good. Before the last one we weren’t really given much of a chance, and we ended up putting in one of the greatest performances of all time. America is clearly in a great spot. They’ve got so many great players; they’ve probably got the greatest bunch of players of all time. But I think so has Europe – we’ve got so many good players that are playing so well. The teams stack up really nicely.
How does playing in the Ryder Cup compare to playing in other tournaments?
It’s amazing what a family you become. It lives with you. You have a different relationship with players you played with during a Ryder Cup. You want it so much for everyone that week. You have 60,000 people, which we have a lot, but there’s only four matches on the course for the first two days and there’s all those people. You don’t see the same emotions in a regular tournament that come out on a Ryder Cup on a Friday morning. The event has just started and every single shot seems to mean so much to everybody.
Recently, pundits, players and journalists seem to have become obsessed with distance hitting and what long-hitting means for the sport. What’s your take?
The game is becoming more athletic all the time. We’ve seen a spike in that kind of thing recently – players looking for speed and distance. At the end of the day, people are talking about the game a lot, which is great. There are different ways of playing the game, hitting it further makes it easier. I don’t really think that should be taken away; I don’t think people should be penalised for having a talent and skill, for being a great athlete – and by the way I’m nowhere near one of the longest so it doesn’t always work in my favour!
What are your favourite features of TAG Heuer’s Connected Golf app?
There are watches out there that will tell you distance to the hole and things like that, but the extra features on TAG’s app – the stats, the way it can help you practise, the way it looks – it makes the game fun. I’m a golf geek at heart, I love everything about the game, so anything that’s enhancing your performance and making it more fun is great.
Can the app actually improve a golfer’s game?
I obviously play at one end of the golfing spectrum, where we have access to the best equipment, the best courses, the sort of stats other people don’t have. For other golfers, this app opens up a whole other dimension. You’re playing on a course with information you’ve never had before and statistics on how you’ve played the course – for sure that’s going to play a part in improving your game.
What are the most underrated golf courses in the UK?
I’m from Southport, which is such a golfing town, so my heart literally is in Southport and all the courses there. I’m sentimental about the course I grew up on, Formby Hall, I love playing there in the summer with my Dad.
What’s England’s best golf course?
I guess I’d say either Sunningdale or Royal Birkdale. Right next to Birkdale is Hillside, where I actually hosted the British Masters in 2019. One of the great things about that was how complementary every tour player was about the course.
What about the best golf course in the world?
The Old Course, St Andrews. It just is. I love the way it plays; I love the atmosphere in the town.
What’s the most memorable round of golf you’ve ever played?
Probably my 63 at the US Open. It wasn’t my first time in contention at a Major but all of a sudden I was playing the back nine of a Major and I had a chance of winning – they’re your real career-defining moments. Plus, the lowest round at the US Open is still 63. The lowest round in a Major is 62, so I had history on my mind, too. It didn’t completely go my way as I lost by one shot, but that chase and that feeling, coming down the back nine in a Major is very, very special. Not everyone gets to experience that.
How about your most memorable shot?
That’s a tough one – there’s a bunch. If I had to pick, it could be my first tee shot when I was playing the Open, or my first tee shot at the Ryder Cup. I think the putt on the 16th on the Friday morning of that Ryder Cup, when I holed the putt while coming down the hill, has been played a lot. That was my first properly massive Ryder Cup moment.
TAG Heuer’s catchphrase is ‘Don’t crack under pressure’. How do you manage nerves?
I think the saying ‘pressure is a privilege’ is a great phrase. You never stop getting nervous and whenever I speak to kids and they ask, ‘when do nerves go?’, I always say that nerves never go away, you just get used to handling them better. I think it’s important to remember that you’re lucky to be in the situation you’re in; you’re obviously doing something right as you’re in a place that’s made you nervous. Embrace the moment; enjoy it; go after it.