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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

DP World Tour Championship: Tommy Fleetwood aims to hunt down best buddy Francesco Molinari to retain Race to Dubai crown

European No 1 needs to win at Jumeirah Golf Estates and hopes friend Molinari finishes outside the top five

Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetywood after winning the Ryder Cup. AFP
Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetywood after winning the Ryder Cup. AFP

Back at the scene of his greatest individual triumph to date, it was put to Tommy Fleetwood that the hunted has very much become the hunter.

The Englishman, a two-time Abu Dhabi champion, has returned to the DP World Tour Championship this week with maybe only one week remaining as Europe’s No 1.

This season’s Race to Dubai concludes, as it typically does, at Jumeirah Golf Estates on Sunday. Whereas 12 months ago Fleetwood came into the week perched on pole and being chased down by a charging Justin Rose, this time he occupies second place, behind good friend Francesco Molinari.

As such, the maths are pretty simple: nothing less than victory will be good enough for Fleetwood to retain the season-long title, although he would still need metronome Molinari, the reigning British Open champion, to finish outside the top five.

From hunted to hunter.

“Yes, it's different,” Fleetwood said on Tuesday. “The biggest difference is it's not in my hands. It's just great to have that excitement surrounding the event again, it really is.

“You've come this far and to have a chance, as little as it is, and it's not a big chance and it's not in my hands at all, but you know it's there and you're teeing off on Thursday with a chance at winning the biggest prize of the year.”

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If anything, perhaps chasing a lead will be easier than holding on to one. Last year, Fleetwood just about did the latter. He rather fell over the line than strode across it, coming home tied-21st to stave off Rose, twice a runner-up in round the Earth Course and who eventually finished in a tie for fourth.

This time, though, Fleetwood feels freer.

“It was a lot closer last year and I was nervous on Thursday,” he said. “Never experienced anything like that playing for a year-long event. It just showed last year.

“A tournament's hard enough when it's four days, but the Race to Dubai, when it's a year long and now all of a sudden you have nine holes to play and that's what the year comes down to, it's a very, very different feeling and very difficult.

“And hopefully, come the back nine on Sunday this year, I have a chance, I have a great week and I'm playing well, and I can give Frank something to think about. But I am chasing and it's a lot of freedom in that.”

Tommy Fleetwood was crowned the 2017 Race to Dubai winner after finishing tied-21st at that year's DP World Tour Championship. Getty Images
Tommy Fleetwood was crowned the 2017 Race to Dubai winner after finishing tied-21st at that year's DP World Tour Championship. Getty

Famously, Fleetwood and Molinari have become best buddies, with their partnership at the recent Ryder Cup only reinforcing the relationship. Predictably, there has been a bit of back and forth in the build-up to this week, but given their friendship, that would only be filed under “playful ribbing”.

“We've literally never mentioned it until last week and then made a couple of jokes about it,” Fleetwood said. “It's funny. He'll say it's in my hands, and I'll say it's in his. That's just how it will be.

“It's a very good thing that we'll be teeing off on Thursday together and sort of see that we have a chance. Great for us as friends. You know you're going out there with the person you're closest with on tour, trying to win the biggest prize that we play for.

“So it's a nice. And like I say, if it doesn't work out for me, I couldn't be happier for him for what he's achieved this year.”

Fleetwood vowed to treat the week like any other, as he seeks a first victory since his second successive win in Abu Dhabi, way back when, in January. So nabbing the year's crown once more would provide a welcome bit of symmetry.

“Yeah, the coincidence thing, I'm not sure,” Fleetwood said. “It would be nice if they all came together again. It would be very nice, and the Middle East has been very kind to me for the last couple of years. I think it's been the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of good golf.”