Golf

Rory McIlroy-Tommy Fleetwood surprise encounter reminds us why the Open matters

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Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy played a practice round at this week’s Open. They’d make for a dream ending, too.
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HOYLAKE, England — The crowd lined the metal barriers along Hoylake’s 18th fairway, three and four and five deep, chatting and sipping and craning their necks for a glimpse of Rory McIlroy — wholly unaware that he was directly behind them.
McIlroy had ducked under the ropes about 100 yards back so he could take a direct route. He was in hot pursuit of his pulled tee shot, which had settled closer to the 1st fairway than to the 18th. One fan noticed and then another, and their heads started turning and their feet started moving, and before long they were following behind him, shouting his name, and he stayed just ahead of them, a surfer ahead of the crest of the wave, closed-mouth smiling, subtly head-nodding, his feet on the same ground as theirs, his mind on the ball ahead.
One English 30-something whirled around as he realized McIlroy was just a club length behind him and elbowed his buddy, who whirled too, and that buddy was holding a beer in each hand and sloshed a little lager out the top of each one, spilling on his shirt in two spots, and he broke into a wide grin at the sight of McIlroy as he passed and then exclaimed something to his friend even as he kept walking.
“Holy s—, that’s legend!”
Eventually McIlroy reached his ball and caddie Harry Diamond scrambled for a yardage and fans did their best to horseshoe around behind him, stretching again for a view while McIlroy waited for the green to clear. It’s a funny thing, a golfer waiting in the middle of a crowd. Everybody can hear everything, so nobody says a word, leaving McIlroy with his own thoughts, practice-swinging a long iron though the long grass beside his ball, instinctually finding the bottom.
After a minute or so, the silence was broken by a single spectator.
Tommy!”
Now the crowd was turning around again. There was Tommy Fleetwood, coming down the 1st fairway, walking in step with his caddie, Ian Finnis, and he nodded at the first yell, but then came another and another and he didn’t acknowledge those, and he just kept walking, focused on the task at hand and wary of conserving the energy required to complete it.
Let’s go Tommy!
We’d polled the crowd at the week’s beginning and there was no question about it: these were the two lads the locals were pulling for, betting on, coming to see. McIlroy lives in Florida and Fleetwood lives in Dubai, but neither is of Florida nor Dubai but of this part of the world instead, specifically the linksland, which makes this their home and the spectators their neighbors. McIlroy is from Northern Ireland, an eight-hour ferry from here. Fleetwood is from Southport, just an hour’s drive. Finnis lives even closer. He plays his golf at West Lancashire, just 18 miles north of Hoylake.
West Lancashire hosted Final Qualifying for this year’s Open. That’s where Matthew Jordan played his way into the field. Matthew Jordan is from here, a proud resident of the Wirral Peninsula. He plays his golf at Royal Liverpool, not just this week but as his home course, which makes this familiar turf. If the fans thought he really had a chance to win, they’d have included him in their pre-tournament predictions alongside McIlroy and Fleetwood. But he turned heads with his opening-round 69, two-under par, teeing off first and well, spurred on by a larger crowd than even he expected.
It was just Friday, but Fridays at major championships are the day of beginnings and endings, and so McIlroy’s walk to the 18th green felt momentous. He sat at even par, on the knife’s-edge between contention and irrelevance. He stared at the scoreboard as he waited for his playing partners to hit, looking for an extra moment at the top, no doubt amazed to see HARMAN -10 five shots clear of the field. Then he returned his focus to the task at hand, a treacherous downwind flop shot with a pot bunker in the way, and he hit the flop high and soft, and the crowd went quiet as the ball rose in the air because it looked like it might have been hit too soft and could well die a terrifying death in that front bunker, but instead it carried just enough, landed on the far side and ran out, settling a few feet from the hole. The crowd erupted with applause, as loud as polite applause can get, their claps echoing ’round the aluminum grandstands like a sudden rainstorm on a tin roof.
McIlroy was pleased with his two-round total of 141 strokes, he said, pleased to make that final birdie and to enter the weekend one shot better than par. “Important,” he called it. He was blown away by Harman, who was blowing away the field. But McIlroy predicted that by day’s end there wouldn’t be very many individuals between him and that lead. He was right; Friday night saw him T11 at the Open’s halfway mark, very much in the mix, the hunt for his first major since 2014 still very much alive.
“I think if I can get to 3-, 4-, 5-under par tomorrow going into Sunday, I’ll have a really good chance,” he said.
At the U.S. Open, McIlroy was asked how it felt to play a major knowing how many people wanted him to win.
“No one wants me to win another major more than I do,” he answered then. But some of these folks might give him a run for his money. They like rooting for McIlroy and for Fleetwood for the same reason they like attending the Open Championship: He’s familiar, and he’s significant, and he’s chasing a piece of history, and he represents the very best of them.
Matthew Jordan took just 141 strokes to get through the first 36 holes, too, turning from nice story to legitimate contender in real time. How did he make sense of the crowds rallying around him?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I think maybe I’ve had a bit of support early on? And then more and more people have noticed that and then want to support themselves.”
Jordan’s playing partner Richie Ramsay is a Scotsman playing in his eighth Open Championship but his first in a half-decade — a long enough gap to cherish this one extra. He said he felt lucky to be playing alongside Jordan and to see the grandstands filled and every little tussock occupied as they passed.
“The thing for me is when you see the hills, people sort of like trampling over the hills at the top of the hills, and it just gets lined, and that’s just really cool. That’s what an Open is,” he said.
Why such a robust turnout? Perhaps, he guessed, because this area gets a bit left behind when it comes to big-time U.K. golf.
“If you look at where we’re situated, they kind of miss out a little bit because we have the PGA at Wentworth [closer to London]. We always have the Scottish Open and then the Open goes north, and this is the only tournament where they come [here].”
Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham aren’t far. But they’re not here, either. The event hasn’t been here since 2014. And now that it’s back?
“I think you just see how special it is,” Ramsay said, “with people just coming out and enjoying it, and when they have someone to pin their hopes on, it’s quite cool to follow, and you’ve got a vested interest, as well.”
The U.K. contingent hardly stops there. A roar went up for Matthew Southgate, a 34-year-old from Southend-on-Sea, when he eagled No. 18 to post 1 under, too. That’s the same number recorded by Richard Bland and Laurie Canter, two English LIV pros, whose performances speak for themselves but also reminding us of their colleagues who aren’t here, too, like Ian Poulter and Paul Casey and Lee Westwood.
Keep scrolling and you’ll find Oliver Wilson of Mansfield and Jordan Smith of Bath, tied 30th. There are the Fitzpatrick brothers, Matt and Alex, tied 39th at 2 over par, the latter after an impressive second-round 70 and the former after a miserable triple-bogey 6 at No. 17. They’re joined by Tyrrell Hatton, who was in the thick of contention for 35 holes but essentially played his way out of it after 36 thanks to a double-O.B. quadruple-bogey 9 at No. 18.
There’s Brandon Robinson Thompson, 30-year-old from the Isle of Wight, who’s never played a major championship before but will now play the weekend in his debut — all under the watchful eye of his grandfather, who’s making his spectating debut, too. Brandon was born in 1992, the year Nick Faldo won the Open, still the most recent Englishman to do so. As for the most recent Englishman to win a major? That’d be Danny Willett at the 2016 Masters. And after a birdie 2 at No. 17 he’s through to the weekend, too, without a shot to spare.
But it’s Fleetwood himself leading the charge for the fans — as well as the field — in an effort to chase down Harman. He battled his way to a second-round even-par 71, hitting tight draws through the wind on a course that demands exactly that. Fans stuck around to see him hole his par putt at No. 18 on Friday evening before they began to empty the grandstands, looking to beat the evening chill and the evening rain and the early closing times of Hoylake’s pubs.
Fleetwood is inspiring not just because of Hoylake’s geographical proximity to home but because of everything else, too. The fans want it for him because he’s been so close but hasn’t gotten there, and because he has an elegant, inspiring way of swinging the club and speaking to the public and going through the world.
Asked about the crowds, Fleetwood searched for words positive enough to convey his emotions, finally settling on “insanely amazing.”
“The northwest is definitely making a name for itself with how they are,” he added. “It’s been great, and I’m just excited to play in front of them.”
The top of the leaderboard at this Open is wonderfully open, dotted with the colorful flags of the United States and Austria and Australia and India and Spain and Argentina all before you leave the top seven. But the last two winners here were Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, which means the club and the fans and the Wirral Peninsula expect a winner of a certain significance to join them. Could it be McIlroy’s name, repeated? Fleetwood, etched for good in local lore? Jordan, unthinkable underdog?
We’re halfway there.

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com. The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.
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