Tommy Fleetwood chose golf over the stage. Funny how things worked out.
Brooks Koepka was talking about Tommy Fleetwood, someone he played a lot of golf with when they were competing on the European Tour several years ago.
“He was fun to play with because he was funny,” Koepka says. “Sneaky funny. Underrated funny. A lot of times he’d say something, and a minute later, you’d get it and start to laugh. He’s that quick.”
Koepka pauses for a moment, smiles and adds, “The Europeans are just funnier than we are. Maybe it’s because they don’t take themselves that seriously.”
There’s no better example of European humour than the video Fleetwood made with Francesco Molinari during the 2018 Ryder Cup victory party in Paris. Fleetwood and Molinari had become the first European team in history to go 4-0 in foursomes and four-ball matches – including three wins over teams that featured Tiger Woods – leading Europe to a 17½-10½ victory. Molinari had beaten Phil Mickelson in singles on Sunday, and Fleetwood had lost to Tony Finau.
Late that night, someone from the European Tour’s staff – the players aren’t the only funny ones – came up with an idea for a video. Shot on a smartphone, it opens with the “Moliwood” duo asleep in bed, the Ryder Cup between them. Molinari wakes up, gives a little start at the sight of Fleetwood next to him, and nudges him to wake him up.
Fleetwood – who considered going to drama school to become an actor when he was a teenager – drowsily turns to Molinari and says, “How good was that for you?”
Molinari shrugs and says, “Four out of four?”
Fleetwood, still sleepy, replies, “I’d give you five out of five, Frankie.”
Arguably the 15 funniest seconds in golf history. It has been viewed more than three million times.
Months later, Fleetwood was making a corporate appearance in Connecticut. The opening question of the night wasn’t about his Ryder Cup performance or his one-shot loss to Koepka in the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. It was about the video.
“Tommy,” the moderator asked, “Can you explain to us how you ended up in bed with Francesco Molinari?”
Without missing a beat, Fleetwood said, “Which time?”
‘A guy who gets it’
There might not be a better-liked player on the PGA and European tours than Fleetwood. He’s one of those guys who can take his golf seriously without taking himself seriously.
“He’s a lovely guy, simple as that,” Ian Poulter says. “He’s fun to play with because he has a great attitude and he’s a very good player. I think everyone in the locker room would love to see him win a Major. He’s good for golf.”
Shane Lowry, the Irishman who denied Fleetwood a Major title last July at the Open Championship played at Portrush, agrees with Poulter. “I can’t think of a win that would be more popular – at least among the European players,” he says. Then smiling, he adds: “Of course I’m glad that win didn’t come at Portrush.”
Most American players who know Fleetwood will tell you that his popularity isn’t limited to his European compatriots. “He’s just one of the good guys out here,” Gary Woodland says. “Some of it is his sense of humour, but some of it is that if he’s playing badly he never lets it ruin your day. He’s just a guy who gets it.”
Fleetwood is also one of the most recognisable players on tour. He wears his brown hair long and has what might be described as a scruffy beard. David Feherty once described him as “looking like a homeless guy who just robbed a Nike store”. Feherty has also suggested that Fleetwood’s hair should be the next president of the United States. Others call him Fairway Jesus.
Feherty adds this: “He’s one of those people who could have done almost anything he wanted to be: an actor, a businessman, a lawyer, a politician. He’s that bright and that charming. He just happens to be very good at golf.”
Amid all the kind words Fleetwood’s peers pass around, there is one dissenting voice: his wife, Clare: “He can’t make bloody toast,” she says, laughing. “And he leaves clothes around the house like he’s still in a hotel.”
That’s it. That’s the list of complaints.
When Feherty interviewed Fleetwood for his “Feherty” TV show last year, he referenced Fleetwood’s abandoned acting career and suggested they act out a scene from “Romeo and Juliet”. Fleetwood was Romeo; Feherty was Juliet – complete with ridiculous-looking wig.
“I thought he was quite good,” Feherty says. “Not so sure about me.”
“I was shocked that David didn’t take it more seriously,” Fleetwood says, his sarcasm fully intact. “So unlike him.” Then he adds, “It was certainly my most-viewed acting performance.”
Shaved head: ‘Mum was horrified’
In most professional sports, Fleetwood’s look would hardly draw a second glance. His brown hair is shoulder-length, nothing more, and his beard doesn’t begin to touch some of those that seem to hang down to belts in other sports. But in the buttoned-down, rules-filled world of golf, he’s clearly different.
“I’ve never been one who wanted to just follow along with what others are doing or saying,” he says. “I kind of do my own thing and don’t really worry what people think about me.”
Fleetwood’s semi-scruffy look grew out of a prank gone semi-wrong five years ago. He and his older brother, Joe, were hanging out, looking for something to do. “Our parents had gone out,” Fleetwood says. “We weren’t drinking at all, but we just got kind of giggly thinking of things to do. For some reason, we decided it would be funny to go to the local barber and get our heads shaved. Didn’t take long – maybe five minutes apiece.”
Fleetwood’s parents, Pete and Sue, came home soon after. “Mum was horrified; I thought she was going to cry,” Tommy says. “I know Dad wanted to laugh, but seeing the look on Mum’s face, he just smiled. After that, I decided to let it grow for a while and, well, here I am.”
Here is where he is today: a five-time winner on the European Tour, a winner of the Race to Dubai (2017) and a Ryder Cup hero. He came achingly close to winning at Shinnecock, missing an eight-foot-birdie putt on the 18th hole on Sunday that would have made him the second player in Major-championship history to shoot 62, after Branden Grace at Royal Birkdale in 2017. Instead, Fleetwood became the 33rd man to shoot 63 in a Major. More important, that miss allowed Koepka to hang on for a one-shot victory.
Fleetwood had been one of the early finishers that Sunday, so he saw most of Koepka’s back nine on television. “He hit it left at 11, and I thought he was going to make at least a 5,” he says, laughing now at the memory. “Then he did it again at 12 – turned a sure 5 into a 4. After that, I just felt as if it was meant to be for him that day. That’s why he’s a great player.”
The memory of that final round remains mixed. “I played one of the great rounds of my life on a historic golf course,” Fleetwood says. “The thought that I could win never crossed my mind at the start of the day. But to come that close and not quite get there still hurts. I’d be lying if I said different.”
Ian Finnis, Fleetwood’s caddie, who was the best man at his wedding and has known him since he was a teenager, still jokes with Koepka that his victory is the reason he can’t afford to send his kids to private school. “Like I said,” Koepka says, “They are funnier than we are.”
Choosing golf over acting
Fleetwood grew up in Southport, England, not far from Royal Birkdale. In fact, his first experience with Major-championship golf came in 1998, when he and Joe snuck into the Open Championship that Mark O’Meara won. Fleetwood began playing as a boy with Joe and their father, who was a construction worker when Tommy was young, and back then, they would occasionally sneak on and play a few holes at Birkdale after the golf course had been closed for the day.
Tommy had two passions as a boy: golf and acting. He took a number of acting classes in high school – “aced them,” he says – and considered applying to drama school when he graduated at the age of 16.
“Golf was my favourite, and acting was second,” he says. “I never really liked school much, so I decided to try to play golf full-time for two years and see what happened. If it didn’t go well, then I’d think about going back to school.”
Golf went well. By the time he was 19, he was the third-ranked amateur golfer in the world, and after briefly flirting with the idea of going to an American college to play golf, he turned pro not long after playing in the Walker Cup for Great Britain & Ireland.
“I knew I was going to turn pro at some point,” he says. “I kept asking people, ‘When do I do it?’ The best answer I got was, ‘You’ll know when it’s time.’ I got to a point where I felt I’d done everything I could do as an amateur. Plus, I was ready to start making some money by then.”
His first full year as a pro – 2011 – was a big success. He played his way onto the European Challenge Tour, won a tournament and ended up as the leading money-winner on the Challenge Tour at the age of 20 – the youngest player ever to do so. “I still am the youngest,” he says, smiling. “Quite proud of that, in fact.”
His play got him promoted to the European Tour the next year. “I found out quickly that I wasn’t ready for that level,” he says. “I just wasn’t a good enough player to compete consistently, and I put too much pressure on myself to succeed. I could drive the golf ball pretty well, but my short game just wasn’t good enough.”
As the year wore on, with his father travelling with him, Fleetwood learned to not treat every tournament as if the future of the world – or at least his world – was riding on it. He came to the final event of the year, the South African Open, needing a top-10 finish to keep his playing privileges.
He finished sixth.
“That told me a lot about myself, about my ability to handle pressure,” he says. “I definitely felt it that week. I mean, it was horrible, truly horrible. But I got through it. If I could go back and go through that again, I’d tell myself to remember that losing your card isn’t the end of the world. A lot of guys have gone through it and come right back the next year. It isn’t that big a deal. Of course, back then, it felt like exactly that big a deal.” He pauses. “That said, I’m glad I didn’t have to go through it.”
Fleetwood won his first European Tour event the next year, at Gleneagles. For the next several years he was a solid player in Europe, finishing as high as 21st and no lower than 41st on the Race to Dubai points list. It was during 2016 that his career path changed.
Perhaps pushing too hard to try to make the Ryder Cup team, he missed five of seven cuts. He decided to ask his boyhood teacher, Alan Thompson, to start working with him again, and he asked Finnis, who had caddied for him at times during his amateur career, to come out and caddie for him again. He also asked his dad to travel with him some of the time.
Finding success and love
Coincidence or not, Fleetwood began to play better than he ever had. He started 2017 with a victory in Abu Dhabi, finished fourth in the US Open at Erin Hills – his first top 10 in a Major – won in France in July and ended up winning the Race to Dubai. He was clearly becoming a star.
He was also in love. He’d first met Clare Craig in her role as vice-president in Europe for the Hambric Sports Group, a management firm. They’d always gotten along. “Sense of humour,” Fleetwood says. “We’re both from northern England and have that sarcastic, dry sense of humour.”
Fleetwood claims there are times when he’ll say something meant to be funny, and people who don’t know him well will miss it. “When you have to explain the joke, it’s no longer funny,” he says. “With Clare, I never had to explain the joke.”
Adds Clare: “I think we’re both that way. I always got it when he was being funny – and I thought he was funny.”
She had met plenty of golfers as a manager but none, she says, like Fleetwood. “He wasn’t as… self-absorbed,” she says. ”Just very comfortable with himself in a way that you didn’t expect from someone so young.”
Fleetwood had changed management groups and joined Hambric after Joe – who is nine years older than he is – went to work there. Initially, Tommy and Clare’s relationship was strictly business. But then that feeling changed.
“I found myself looking forward to seeing him, whether on the range or in a clubhouse or occasionally on the same flight home on Sunday,” Clare says. “I told myself the idea of being attracted to him was crazy. I was 20 years older than he was, I had two kids, and my job was massively important to me.”
Fleetwood got all that, but he kept asking her to have a drink or perhaps dinner. She kept keeping him at arm’s length, even though she had admitted to herself by then that she was attracted to him. By then, her boys had met Fleetwood and liked him a lot. “My older one [Oscar] kept saying to me, ‘Why don’t you go out with him?’ Finally, I did.”
They kept the relationship quiet during the northern summer of 2015, but then Clare told her boss, Rocky Hambric.
He fired her.
“At the time I don’t think he believed me when I told him it was love, pure and simple,” she says. “I thought he was just being nasty. Now, I realise he did the right thing. We’ve rebuilt our bridges.”
Tommy and Clare had a son – Franklin, who is called Frankie by everyone – in September 2017, and they were married in December of that year. Tommy adopted Clare’s sons: matchmaker Oscar, now 13, and Mo, now 11. The past two years, the five Fleetwoods have travelled the PGA Tour circuit in the summer after the older boys are out of school, and Clare’s full-time non-family job is representing Tommy.
That job has become a lot more complicated, starting with Shinnecock and then, soon after, with the Ryder Cup. Fleetwood wasn’t surprised when European captain Thomas Bjorn paired him with Molinari. Their games jibed well, and the two were already good friends.
Another person not surprised by the success of the pairing was US captain Jim Furyk. “I thought going in they’d be a strong pairing, especially on that golf course,” he says, referencing the importance of keeping the ball in the fairway at Le Golf National. “It fit both their games perfectly.”
In the Friday four-balls, they scored Europe’s only point – beating Woods and Patrick Reed – then led the European sweep of the afternoon foursomes with a 5&4 win over Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, the American duo’s only loss. Two more wins on Saturday improved Fleetwood and Molinari’s record to 4-0, a mark not even reached by Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.
“That’s been the highlight for me so far,” Fleetwood says. “Being part of a team made it special, and going 4-0 with Fran made it even better.” He smiles. “Of course, if I’d won the US Open maybe it would be No.1, but since I didn’t…”
He says he’s looking forward to playing the postponed Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits next September. “It will definitely be a different sort of crowd,” he says with a grin. “But I’m kind of looking forward to the challenge. Makes it fun.”
Awaiting a win in America
Fleetwood didn’t become a PGA Tour member until 2018. In fact, when he missed the cut in March at Bay Hill, it was only his second missed cut in 34 starts as a PGA Tour member and ended a streak of 33 straight made cuts worldwide. He finished 19th in the FedEx Cup standings in 2018, 16th in 2019 then 92nd in a disrupted 2020. But he’s still looking for his first win in the United States – as NBC’s Paul Azinger pointed out during the last round of the Honda Classic, sounding as if Fleetwood’s five European Tour wins were almost meaningless (and without any mention of his play in the Ryder Cup).
Though several European players, notably Poulter and Lee Westwood, found Azinger’s tone condescending, one person who agrees with Azinger is Fleetwood.
“I’m playing here because it’s the best tour in the world,” he says. “I’m a homebody – I love being at home in England, but I want to challenge myself regularly against the best. That’s why I’m here and why I plan to stay here.”
He and Clare still don’t have a place in the United States, but they’ve discussed it. The past two years, they used weeks off in the summer to travel. Last year it was the Bahamas (where they were married) and the Hamptons. “Wouldn’t mind living there,” Tommy says, laughing.
In the meantime, Fleetwood will keep trying to get better. He thought he had a shot at winning the Open Championship last year before Lowry pulled away on the last day. Fleetwood had played a little better every day: 68-67-66 in relatively benign conditions and was in second place, trailing Lowry by four after Lowry’s brilliant Saturday 63.
“It felt as if it was just Shane and me, and I went to bed thinking I really had a chance,” Fleetwood says. “Since I was a boy, winning our Open has been my dream. I remember Shane and I were the last two out of the locker room on Saturday, and I said to him, ‘Well, I hope it’s one of us tomorrow.’ Of course, I was hoping that one would be me.
“It wasn’t meant to be. It was a tough day, and Shane held together better than anyone. That’s why he won by six. When I made double-bogey at 14, it was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had on a golf course, because it was completely over at that point. I’ll say this: sometimes you lose a golf tournament, sometimes the other guy wins. That day Shane won.”
Fleetwood is considered one of golf’s best drivers and is a solid iron player. He’d like to be more consistent around the greens, and he believes he’s got plenty of room for improvement.
If other players question anything about him it is whether he is perhaps too nice to be a Major champion.
“I wondered it myself at times as an agent,” Clare says. “But now, seeing what I see in him as his wife, I am 100 percent convinced he’s got what he needs. I see it in his face when he wants to slit someone’s throat on the golf course. Trust me, it’s there.”
Fleetwood is still as driven, he says, as he was on the Challenge Tour. “I never want to feel comfortable,” he says. “Part of that is because I’ve struggled at times and don’t want to have that feeling again. Part of that is because I still have a lot more I want to accomplish.”
Most of those who have played with him believe he’ll take those next steps – winning in the United States, winning a Major – in the not-too-distant future.
He came close at the Honda Classic, coming to the 18th hole on Sunday needing a birdie on the par 5 to tie Sungjae Im. But he over-cut his 5-wood second shot, and it found the water. “Right shot,” he says. “Poor execution.” And the lout who screamed after his swing? “Never heard him,” he says.
Fleetwood flew home as soon as the Players Championship was cancelled because of the coronavirus, and he felt relieved to be there. “Just being home at a time like this is comforting,” he said at the time. “It was a confusing few days with things being shut down. I just hope for everyone’s sake we can collectively push through this and come out the other side eventually – wherever that is.”
His peers believe that he’ll win in the US very soon. “He’s got the kind of game that travels well,” Woodland says. “You drive the ball like that, there isn’t any kind of golf course you can’t play. And he has such a good attitude. He’s been knocked down a few times. He may get knocked down a few more. My bet is he gets back up.”
And when that time comes, one thing is almost certain: Tommy Fleetwood will win with grace and style. And, he’ll leave them laughing.