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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson lead the plaudits as Tommy Fleetwood basks in Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title defence

Englishman describes 'really brilliant' feeling after retaining the Falcon Trophy at Abu Dhabi Golf Club by two shots.

Tommy Fleetwood successfully retained the Falcon Trophy after winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Karim Sahib / AFP
Tommy Fleetwood successfully retained the Falcon Trophy after winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Karim Sahib / AFP

Rory McIlroy was seriously impressed, ditto Dustin Johnson.

All things considered, that represents some endorsement. Not that Tommy Fleetwood needed it, really. The silverware beside him was enough.

Perched there on Sunday, at the conclusion of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA, was the same Falcon Trophy he landed 12 months ago. Better clear that space at home, then.

“To have it for another year on the mantelpiece again is just really, really brilliant,” Fleetwood said following another hugely impressive victory in the capital.

“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.”

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Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

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Fortunately, he did not have to. Fleetwood fought a five-shot deficit and the elements at a blustery National Course to shoot the day’s joint-lowest score and win by two. He began his final round two back from Ross Fisher and Thomas Pieters, then displayed the finesse and the fortitude to reinforce a reputation on the rise.

As Fisher fumbled in the desert, Fleetwood forged forward. He played the back nine in 6-under par, courtesy in part of mammoth birdie putts on 15 and 16, and a fine up-and-down for a four on the par-5 last.

It left Fisher requiring eagle on the last to force a play-off, but having led for much of Sunday he had to settle for a par, a 69 and solo second. McIlroy finished third on 18-under, alongside Matt Fitzpatrick, with Pieters slipping to tied-fifth, together with Chris Paisley.

Fleetwood had displayed significant resolve and thus deserved the win. When the pressure peaked and the wind whirled, he came into his own, crediting a short putt on 10 and an expert up-and-down on 11 as crucial to maintaining momentum. Making the turn five off the lead, eventually he triumphed by two.

“The back nine was a very, very special nine holes,” Fleetwood said.

McIlroy concurred. Commenting on Fleetwood’s form coming in - it was six better than his - the four-time major champion said: “It's incredible. He had a great year last year, won the Race to Dubai, No 1 in Europe and then to just keep going. This week, defending champion, to put that round of golf together out there today - I mean, 65 in those conditions is seriously impressive.

“He's a great addition to the world of golf, a great addition to the European Tour and will be a great addition to the Ryder Cup team in September.”

Earlier, world No 1 Johnson had highlighted a game with no obvious flaws. He spent the first two days alongside Fleetwood and McIlroy, and was suitably impressed by the Englishman’s talent. The 27 year old was suitably pleased to hear of the support.

“I had such a good time the first two days with Rory and Dustin, who are potentially the two best players of our generation,” Fleetwood said. “To have your peers talk about you like that; Rory, obviously has done it all in the game. So having people talk about you like that is very nice.”

Fleetwood was always wary of remaining part of the conversation. Last year’s Abu Dhabi victory triggered a breakout 2017, when the then-world No 100 rode the crest of a wave to win again and end the season as Race to Dubai champion. On Sunday, Fleetwood’s fourth European Tour success lifted back to the top of this year’s embryonic standings.

“That’s more like it,” he quipped.

Becoming only the second player to successfully defend in Abu Dhabi, it could also carry Fleetwood to a career-high 10th in the world. After a rather raucous 2017, he appears to have kept calm during his winter break and simply carried on.

“Last year, I had had the year of my life by a long, long way on the course,” Fleetwood said. “And everything we've done, everything we've talked about during that month off was to make sure we kept progressing, kept improving.

“Had a great week [at last week's EurAsia Cup], and then to validate your position of Race to Dubai champion or player of the year so early on is really nice and satisfying in a way.”