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Tommy Fleetwood seeing good signs and in contention once again

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Tommy Fleetwood seeing good signs and in contention once again

    Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62

    PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Tommy Fleetwood produced scores only one shot apart to begin the Valspar Championship – 3-under 68 on Thursday, followed by 69 on Friday – but the rounds felt worlds apart in terms of ease.

    Friday, as winds started to pick up late in the morning, suddenly everything seemed to get more difficult at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course. Two bogeys coming home put a dent in Fleetwood’s score after an eagle on his 10th hole (the par-5 first) gave him the tournament lead at 7 under. But he nonetheless left Friday quite upbeat about his overall play, and will enter the weekend in good position to chase that elusive first PGA TOUR victory. Fleetwood sits at 5-under 137 through 36 holes, with nobody ahead of him in the field running away at the demanding Copperhead Course.

    “I was talking to Rosie (Justin Rose) about it once we got in. I think both of us found, once you get a little bit scrappy, it feels so tough,” said Fleetwood, who finished under par despite hitting less than half his fairways (6 of 13) and exactly half his greens (9 of 18). “You don’t have to miss the fairway by much, so hard to control the ball, so hard to hit the green, up and downs are never easy ... it escalates.

    “Overall, I thought I did a good job. You just have to stay so, so patient. You really can’t force anything out there. “

    Fleetwood, 32, set a high standard of play from 2017 through the start of 2020, playing his way into the top 10 in the world. He represented England at the Olympic Games and competed on two Ryder Cup teams, hoisted upon shoulders in Paris five years ago to chants of “Tommy, Tommy!" His play fell off about the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and he is working hard to find his way back. Currently, Fleetwood is ranked 27th in the world.

    “I had a year stretch, I would say, sort of post COVID in 2021, I felt like I was poor, really, and struggled,” he said.

    Slowly, Fleetwood is showing some very strong signs. He finished top 5 in two majors in 2022. There were three days of stellar play at THE CJ CUP in South Carolina last fall after an opening 73, a DP World Tour victory in South Africa before the holidays (Nedbank Golf Challenge) and steady play at the elevated Genesis Invitational, where he tied for 20th. A week ago on Saturday, he thrust himself into contention at THE PLAYERS by shooting a third-round 65. (Sunday, he would struggle to 76.) So good play definitely lives within him.

    Friday, he faced 215 yards into the par-5 first hole (his 10th), but didn’t think he could quite get there with a 5-iron because of the steep downhill lie upon which his drive came to rest. He was just trying to get his approach anywhere near the front of the green, maybe in the front bunker. He flushed the shot, it carried far enough to nudge through the rough, and it left him 3 feet for eagle. He just needs to find those round-changing moments a little more often.

    Tommy Fleetwood's impressive second leads to eagle at Valspar

    “You look at Saturday at THE PLAYERS, obviously putting myself in a nice place on the leaderboard going into Sunday,” Fleetwood said. “Sunday wasn't really my day at all. But so far, halfway through this week, I'm up at the right end of the leaderboard again. Just keep doing that, just keep doing the right things, then see where my golf takes me, really, from there.

    “But, for sure, the first thing you got to do is sort of play well with a good attitude and put yourself in positions. That's what the best players do more often than anybody else, and that's what I keep trying to do.”

    It keeps him pushing toward landing that elusive first PGA TOUR victory, a day he hopes will arrive soon. This week marks his 112th TOUR start, and four times he has been a runner-up. He is a proven winner across a world stage, counting seven international wins, but winning here in the U.S. would be a great boost to his career.

    It’s a delicate mix, trying to balance between wanting to win badly, and potentially wanting to win a little too much. There are times to push and times to wisely back down a little.

    “That’s one of the trickier things for any professional athlete, I guess, your own expectations, and your own dreams, and how much you want it,” said Fleetwood, who competed the first two days in a very comfortable grouping alongside fellow Englishmen Matthew Fitzpatrick and Justin Rose.

    “Nobody gets where they are without having all that. ... There’s times out here when your dreams can feel further away, and then there’s times when you feel close, and times when you are going to achieve it. The key is to try to do the right things every day, and you need to enjoy it along the way.

    “Whatever happens this weekend, happy to see my game start moving in the right direction.”

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