Players 2023: Tommy Fleetwood has everything to play for on Sunday, including a new Wikipedia photo
Tommy Fleetwood plays his shot from the seventh tee during the third round of the Players.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — It's very easy to root for Tommy Fleetwood, also known as "Fairway Jesus" among the pro-American crowd at the Players Championship. That's not always the case for Englishmen in enemy territory, especially the ones who have inflicted some serious pain on the U.S. squad in past Ryder Cups.
But Fleetwood? He could flip a pair of double birds at the American team in Italy next fall and still be beloved on U.S. soil. Part of it is his aesthetic. How could you not love a dude with hair straight out of a Head and Shoulders commercial, a scraggly beard, an infectious smile and an English accent? Everything, literally everything, sounds better with an English accent.
The other part? Watching the guy play golf is so much fun. He attacks the ball like it said something insulting to his mother. It's a move that often produces a high, towering draw that, when it's working, leads to rounds like Saturday's seven-under 65 at TPC Sawgrass, which vaulted Fleetwood into the top four after he began the day in 20th place. It's also a move that has served him well at the tricky Pete Dye layout. Since 2018, he's shot six rounds of 68 or better here. Cooking like that year after year makes it that much easier for the fine folks of Jacksonville to remain firmly in your corner.
Fleetwood's theory is a little different.
"Hopefully it's just because I'm a nice guy," he said. "I've always enjoyed playing over here, I've always enjoyed the interaction with the fans, their enthusiasm. I think they're great for the game and I enjoy playing in front of them. I've been lucky to have that support, and hopefully that continues."
It should on Sunday, when the six-time DP World Tour winner will look to get a rather large gorilla off his back. Despite possessing the talent to make a pair of European Ryder Cup teams and amass five top-five finishes in major championships, Fleetwood has still yet to win a PGA Tour event. What a place this would be to check that box.
"That's been a goal, a dream, an incentive as long as I've been playing out here," said Fleetwood. "Yeah, sure, I would have loved to have done it by now. I would have loved to have done it multiple times. But I haven't, so tomorrow's another chance."
He had an equally prime chance in the 2019 version of this tournament, beginning the weekend tied for the lead and then playing in the final group alongside Jon Rahm on Sunday. He and the Spaniard combined to shoot four over, while Rory McIlroy closed with a two-under 70 in the group ahead of them to win by one.
Fleetwood remembers the day well, mainly because he can't seem to avoid rewatching it.
"They kind of show that one quite a lot on TV because Rory won it," he said. "So I've watched how that one unfolds plenty of times."
Save for a late, face-saving eagle at the par-5 16th in 2019, it was a rather "meh" final round for Fleetwood. Getting into contention on Saturday and quietly fading on Sunday has unfortunately been a common theme. But it's not for lack of effort, nor is it to protect a bigger paycheck. When he tees off in the penultimate group on Sunday at Sawgrass, he will be playing to win.
"A good top-five won't change my life," Fleetwood said. "I'll go out and set out like I do every week and try and win the tournament. Look, we play for incredible amounts of money, and a top five would be—it would absolutely be lovely. It would be a great result for starters, and it would give me a lot of confidence about my game, be another fantastic result, be a lot of money. Don't particularly spend that much money. That would be great, but I think going out with a chance to win the Players Championship is something that's very special and that's probably what I'll look forward to the most."
Another added incentive? A win of this magnitude may finally be enough for Wikipedia to update the decades-old profile photo of Fleetwood without his trademark Fairway Jesus look.
"It's not a great one, is it?" Fleetwood said Saturday. "I should get an update [on the photo] whether I win or not, really. We'll work on it."
A career-affirming win, a $4.5 million check, a place in golf history and a new picture in the place the entire internet first sees you when they Google your name. There's just a little bit to play for on Sunday for Tommy lad.