PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — File this under “strange but true.” Amid a sustained series of recent successes around the globe, none of the 14 Englishmen hanging around for the weekend at Royal Portrush has won an Open Championship. Not Justin Rose. Not Paul Casey. Not Lee Westwood. Not Tyrrell Hatton. Not Matt Fitzpatrick. Not Danny Willett.
And not Tommy Fleetwood. Not yet. But that might change soon enough.
Indeed, one has to go back as much as 27 years to find the last time an Englishman did finish first. In 1992, Nick Faldo became “champion golfer of the year” at Muirfield in Scotland. But no Englishman has won on home ground since Tony Jacklin at Royal Lytham in 1969, the first Open victory by a son of St. George since Herbert Gustavus Max Faulkner triumphed at Royal Portrush in 1951.
What does all this mean? Something or nothing. Fleetwood surely had other things on his mind before teeing off with Westwood in the penultimate group on Day 3 of this 148th Open. But if either had searched the record books for even distant precedent in their favor here in Northern Ireland, it would begin and end with Faulkner, a colorfully eccentric individual plucked from the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
Still, ignorance can be bliss. If Fleetwood, 28, was harboring any negative thoughts, there was no hint of them in a beautifully played third round. He was bogey-free and time after time displayed a purity of ball-striking many believe is consistently the equal of anyone else on the planet. Throw in a few timely putts, and the end result was a 66 that took Fleetwood to 12 under par and into a clear second place, four shots behind leader Shane Lowry and two ahead of J.B. Holmes in third.
That doesn’t sound too terrible, and Fleetwood was quick to emphasize the positives of his day on the Dunluce Links. But a fact remains: He was five under par without dropping a stroke and still lost ground after Lowry’s amazing 63. How does a man handle such a slap in the face? With a smile, apparently.
"It was a very special occasion and a great day to be playing,” Fleetwood said. “I’m happy to be in the mix. I’m happy to be a part of it. And happy to play my part in the atmosphere today. I did a lot of things well. Aside from hitting golf shots, everything that I set out to do before today, I felt like I was really good at. I played great. I felt really comfortable in my swing, and I was able to hit the shots I wanted to.”
There is, however, also a realism about this ever-likable character. And his tribute to Lowry’s play was clearly sincere.
“Shane has an amazing short game,” Fleetwood said. “And I've always loved his swing. I appreciate the flow he has throughout his game. Over the last three or four holes there it was a strange feeling, though. I've gone bogey-free and played really well. So it would have been easy to get frustrated because Shane was doing so well.
“But I have to look at it all realistically. I had a great day. I had one of the best rounds of the day. ... Shane just played great, and I'm four back. That's it. I’m just happy with how I played.”
There was even positivity about the looming weather that has caused the tee times for the final round to be moved forward two hours.
“The guys that are up there on the leaderboard are not going to be too fussed about the conditions,” Fleetwood said. “It's not like it's an advantage or disadvantage to anyone. I personally don't mind. I've had some of my best rounds in terrible conditions, where I've enjoyed grinding it out. Shane hasn’t played in sunshine and no wind all his life, either. So it's not going to be a problem for him. It's just another added script to the Open, really. The weather is always part of it.”
All of which is a long way from the struggling young man who arrived at the final event of the 2012 European Tour season, the South African Open, in 124th place, the second-to-last exempt spot. Needing something special, Fleetwood shot a closing 69 to finish T-6 and haul himself up to 109th on what was then called the Order of Merit. One year later, the former English Amateur champion had won his first tournament, the Johnnie Walker Classic at Gleneagles, and was on his way. ... To becoming Open champion? We’ll soon find out. An English victory might just be due to happen.