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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

With Race to Dubai in the bag, Fleetwood aims to be 'best player in the world'

A topsy-turvy weekend that ended in joy at Dubai could prove to be launchpad for talented English golfer

Tommy Fleetwood has had a memorable year on the UAE's golf courses. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
Tommy Fleetwood has had a memorable year on the UAE's golf courses. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images

In most lines of work, €58,821 (Dh255,000) equates to a significant chunk of change. In the gilded world that elite golfers occupy, it amounted to little more than the proverbial cigarette paper on Sunday night.

At the end of the 2017 European Tour season, that piffling sum was all that separated the Race to Dubai’s two lead protagonists.

When Justin Rose walked off the 18th at Earth Course with a birdie to move to 17-under for the tournament, it gave him a share of fourth place at the DP World Tour Championship.

Because of the way the purse for the season-ending event was divvied up, it meant he fell just short of overhauling Tommy Fleetwood at the top of the Order of Merit.

Not that anyone seemed any the wiser when the final putt fell. Fleetwood sat in the recorders hut with his partner Clare and seven-week-old baby Franklin, watching the final throes of Rose’s round on the television.

As the putt went in, young Franklin seemed about as up to speed on the mathematics of it as everyone else. And he happily snoozed through it all anyway.

Once confirmation arrived, Fleetwood shared a happy embrace with his fiancee, kissed his baby's head, then set about finding Rose to commiserate.

“The emotions were difficult, because I don’t trust computers,” Fleetwood said.

“Even when everything had finished, it was so difficult to get up or down. I felt for Justin a lot, and seeing him when he came in, how gracious he was, shows a lot about his character.

“The whole week, I have never done anything like this before.”

This was an unusual final day. The Race to Dubai is usually settled by its victor powering over the line in domineering fashion.

The tournament’s history started with a bang in 2009 when Lee Westwood won it, to leapfrog the history-chasing young buck Rory McIlroy to the Race title. McIlroy had hardly surrendered without a fight. He finished third at Jumeirah Golf Estates.

Since then, the Northern Irishman has twice clinched the overall money list title by winning the climax in Dubai.

Rose and Fleetwood, by contrast, appeared to be saying: “No, after you, sir.”

Fleetwood, who had shown such pluck and courage by bouncing back in Rounds 2 and 3 after a horror start on Thursday, basically fell over the finish line. His 2-over final-round 74 gave him a tournament total of 11-under, good enough for a tie for 21st.

Kiradech Aphibarnrat, his final-round playing partner, who finished tied for second behind the rookie winner Jon Rahm, congratulated him on the 18th green. “We’ll see,” Fleetwood replied.

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Because it was around that time that the wheels were coming off his compatriot’s challenge.

Maybe Rose just ran out of steam, after a remarkable run to get to this point. He had won his previous two tournaments before arriving in Dubai, and appeared set fair for a hat-trick, before stumbling down the home straight.

Holding the lead, and having not dropped a shot in the past 29 holes, Rose proceeded to make three bogeys between 12 and 16, thus harpooning his chances.

“Everything was in hand,” Rose said. “Then I hit a poor shot into the water [at the par-5 14th]. That ultimately put me in chasing mode, then it was tough to make something happen.”

Fleetwood has left the UAE with trophies at both the start and end of this season, having won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January.

His rise to becoming the Tour’s top player was not universally foreseen, not least by the player himself. He conceded he had been “scared” of playing as recently as 18 months ago, when his form had dived.

“Turned up the [Thursday] morning, and I genuinely wanted to pull out because I didn't think I could get it off the first tee,” Fleetwood recalled of playing at the PGA Championship in the summer of 2016.

“I was embarrassed how I was hitting it. In all honesty I was scared of what I was going to do.”

Now, though, the sky is the limit. “I think we are just about to find out how good Tommy Fleetwood is,” said Rahm, the DP World Tour Championship winner.

Fleetwood is hoping he can repay the faith. “My ultimate goal in life is to be the best player in the world,” he said.

“That will always be the same. Whether I achieve it or not is another thing, but I'll always strive for that.”

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