PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It doesn’t take much to stand out on the PGA Tour, where players tend to a drearily predictable crew-cut conformity and where personality is most commonly expressed by wearing non-khaki pants. That Tommy Fleetwood ranks among the most recognizable players on Tour owes less to his record than to the flowing mane that spills from his cap. The 28-year-old Englishman has never won in the United States — and only four times in Europe — but enjoys more popularity than some recent winners who would be tough to pick out of a lineup.
On Thursday at the Players Championship it was Fleetwood’s clubs rather than his coiffure that drew attention. The world No. 13 shot an opening-round 65 to grab the early lead ahead of a chasing pack that includes Rory McIlroy.
“There were some tough holes there, but I kind of drove it so well that I was always in a good position,” Fleetwood said. “The course feels different then. Like if you’re in the fairway all the time, the course feels very, very different.”
Thursday was Fleetwood’s ninth round at TPC Sawgrass, one of the most difficult venues on Tour, and the fifth time he has broken 70. But while he has enjoyed a string of high finishes on Tour — including a second place at last year’s U.S. Open on the back of a Sunday 63 — Fleetwood has yet to lift a trophy in the United States. He threatened to break through at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational two hours south in Orlando, but a disastrous Saturday sank his hopes.
“It’s difficult putting four rounds of golf together,” he explained. “It just didn’t happen for me.”
He finished T3 on Sunday, ensuring his pursuit of the American dream win will continue. “I love playing out here. Since I’ve played out here more regularly, it’s improved my game because I feel like there’s different tests and it tests different sides of your game,” he said. “It’s clearly the next step for me to win over here, but winning is not easy, and I’ve just got to keep plugging away, keep doing the right things and focus on myself.”
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This year Fleetwood’s third start in the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He shot all four rounds under par last year on the way to a T7 finish. He was T41 in 2017.
“I love the course. If you like golf, you should like this golf course really. It’s just about as fair as you’re going to get a test. If you hit it well like I did today, you’re going to have chances and you can shoot a score, and people are shooting scores,” he said. “But you can also get it the other way, as soon as you start struggling and start going the other way, it can easily go against you.”
Despite shooting 65, which included a scintillating 30 on the front nine (his second nine), Fleetwood said he’s conscious of the need to remain focused on the three-day task left at hand. “You can only play yourself out of it in round one,” he said philosophically. “I’ve done a good job keeping myself in it, and it’s a great spot to move on from here.”