Fleetwood is the man to beat, says 'confident' McIlroy
If the Abu Dhabi Championship was where Tommy Fleetwood resurrected his career in 2017, then his successful defence in 2018 could one day be seen as just as important in breathing fresh life into his march to the top of the game.
Certainly the manner in which the 27-year-old stormed through the back nine in 30 shots in windy conditions to deny fellow Englishman Ross Fisher suggested that here is a man destined for golf's more prestigious honours.
Looking on, Rory McIlroy - who finished in a tie for third in his first tournament in four months - led the praise.
"It's incredible what Tommy has done and where he's come in 12 months," McIlroy said. "To put that round together in the conditions is seriously impressive. A 65 (for a 22-under total) out there is remarkable, especially being six-under for that back nine.
"Tommy's the guy to beat in Europe right now. He's a great addition to the world of golf and will be a great addition to Europe's Ryder Cup team."
Indeed. Not bad for a player who, 18 months ago, was outside the world's top 150 and, by his own description, "feeling lost".
The least of Fleetwood's ambition will be to retain the European Tour order of merit title he won last year, and he is on the brink of the world's top 10.
"Last year I had the year of my life and it was important to come out and show I was still hungry and doing the right things," Fleetwood said, after hugging his wife Clare and their baby, Frankie. "I actually feel more emotional than I did last year. I really wanted to win this.
"Everybody has been talking about what I did in 2017, and backing it up was the next big thing. If I could make the world's top 10 that would be very cool."
The fact that he played with McIlroy and World No 1 Dustin Johnson in the first two rounds only strengthens the conviction Fleetwood has confirmed his standing among the elite.
While most were looking to McIlroy to chase down Fisher, after the 37-year-old eagled the second and took a four-shot lead after birdies at the fourth and seventh, it was Fleetwood who began to gobble up the ground.
In the gusts, Abu Dhabi Golf Club is far from straightforward but, with a peerless ball-striking display, Fleetwood produced the surge, allowing his putter to create the magic.
There were 20-footers on the 12th and 13th, before a 25-footer on the 15th. But it was the 40-footer on the 16th which inspired the emotion, Fleetwood punching the air as his fifth birdie putt in seven holes dropped. He had taken the lead and, when he made a nerveless up-and-down for birdie on the 18th, his third win in 12 months was all but guaranteed.
Coming up the last, Fisher needed an eagle to force a play-off, but could only par for his third runner-up finish in six events. He must wonder what he has to do to win, although there was no shame in falling to Fleetwood.
As for McIlroy, this was his seventh top-three finish at Abu Dhabi in his past eight appearances.
Despite the failure to win here, there are so many positives for McIlroy to take to this week's Dubai Desert Classic that negative thoughts will be squashed.
"I would have taken this at the start of the week, I really would," he said after his closing 70. "After so long away, I didn't really know what my expectations were. I just wanted to get back on the course and play again.
"I've done that, and I've played pretty well and feel like I did everything I wanted to do.
"Maybe I didn't get the ball close enough on the back nine today but, apart from that, it's been really good. This gives me confidence going into not only next week, but the few months ahead."
Matthew Fitzpatrick finished alongside playing partner McIlroy on 18 under after his own 70, while Chris Paisley, who won last week's South African Open, made it four Englishmen in the top six as he posted a 69 to end on 17 under. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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