ANTALYA, Turkey — For much of this year, the figures in Tommy Fleetwood’s rearview mirror have been distant and hard to discern. As any good driving instructor will tell you though, it is best to keep paying close attention to the road behind. And sure enough, things are rapidly changing on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.
Two weeks ago, Justin Rose was nowhere to be seen on what used to be called the Order of Merit. But now, after two successive wins, the former US Open champion is long-time leader Fleetwood’s closest challenger for the $1,250,000 bonus that goes to the man who finishes atop the season-long contest.
With a closing six-under 65, Rose claimed the Turkish Airlines Open title—seven days after winning the WGC-HSBC Champions in China—and moved to within €134,838 of Fleetwood at the top of the money list. So, is a stirring climax to the 2017 season in store? Well, yes and no. Fleetwood, the impressively hirsute Englishman, remains a strong favorite to prevail. Rose’s absence from this coming week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa will only add to the financial gap between the leading pair, who will reconvene in Dubai for the European Tour finale, the DP World Tour Championship. All of which is for the future. In the meantime, Rose was understandably keen to savor a 10th victory on his home circuit (in his 283rd appearance) and the first back-to-back wins of his already distinguished career. “I like achieving new firsts,” he said. “But the Race to Dubai is still in Tommy's hands. I just know I need to go and play well in Dubai. That’s been my mentality from the outset, and it’s not going to change. But it's exciting to be within touching distance.”
RELATED: Was there a conspiracy this week in Turkey against players making aces? Speaking of which, starting two shots behind the overnight leaders, Shane Lowry and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Rose, the Olympic champion and highest-ranked player in the field, emerged from a congested leader board—at one point early on the back nine, as many as nine players were within one shot of the lead—to claim the €985,485 first prize and, not insignificantly, get further inside young Fleetwood’s hairy head.
At the end of a bogey-free weekend that left him T-23 for the week, Fleetwood was asked if he was suddenly a “Frittelli fan” as Dylan Frittelli appeared to be one to watch over the closing holes.
“I’m a fan of quite a few players on the board,” he said with a smile. “But Justin is clearly peaking. I just need to build a bit of momentum. This week I had no momentum and last week I had no momentum. They have been OK weeks, but just nothing quite going forward that way.”
Maybe 90 minutes later, it came down to this. With Frittelli already in the clubhouse on 17 under at the Regnum Carya Golf & Spa Resort, Rose and playing partner Nicolas Colsaerts arrived on the 18th tee needing pars on the 410-yard, uphill par 4 to tie the South African. As it turned out, Rose went one better, holing from 12 feet for a birdie that was good enough to clinch victory only after Belgium’s first-ever Ryder Cup player missed from roughly 10 feet to force a playoff.
All in all, it was a fittingly exciting ending to a last hour of play that had a bit of everything, especially if birdies are what take your fancy. Frittelli, who remarkably chipped-in five times during the last two rounds, made two birdies over the last four holes and eight in total en route to a closing 64 highlighted by a front-nine 29. Colsaerts made three birdies in succession from the 15th and six for the day. And Rose’s closing effort was his fourth dip under par in his last seven holes. Only twice over the 72 holes did he drop shots to par, a double bogey at the second in his opening round and a bogey on the third hole three days later.
“Sometimes you don't have to birdie every single hole to win,” he said. “Sometimes you don't have to do as much as you think you have to do. But, as it turned out today, a couple of guys did really step up, and it was a day where you had to do something to win. So it was nice to birdie two of the last three. Over the first three days I didn’t putt so well towards the end of my rounds. Today it was the opposite. Again, it is nice to know I did it when I had to.”
As for Colsaerts, the big-hitting Brussels-native was happy enough to have been back in contention at the end of an inconsistent season that had previously produced only two top-10 finishes.
“The juices were flowing,” Colsaerts said. “It was great to be able to push it until the end. The finish was great. It's been a while since I’ve been able to almost close in such a fashion. So I guess there are a lot of positives to take out of this week. I’m very satisfied with the way I handled the last couple of holes, which gave me the opportunity to have a chance on 18. It's a little sour right now but I have no regrets.”
A little further down the leader board, last year’s champion Thorbjorn Olesen put up a stout defense of his title with a fifth-place finish, one shot behind former Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington. And Englishman Eddie Pepperell—“I’m definitely trending”—recorded his sixth top-10 finish in his last seven starts when a closing 67 took him to T-6 alongside Aphibarnrat.