Abu Dhabi win caps career turnaround for Fleetwood

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) It was the summer of 2015 and Tommy Fleetwood had climbed inside the world's top 50 for the first time in his career when he tried to change is swing.

''I thought it would make me a world-class golfer,'' Fleetwood recalled of his ''naive'' vision.

Instead, a player who already had one title to his name - the Johnnie Walker Championship in 2013 - and was thought to be on the verge of special things entered the worst spell of his professional career. Even his driving, the strongest part of his game, went awry.

''It was killing my golf game off, really,'' Fleetwood said, taking about the ''dark days'' when he was no longer enjoying a sport he excelled in as an amateur.

So, the northern Englishman with long, flowing hair and an affable personality went back to his old coach, Alan Thompson, who was first with him as a 13-year-old, and re-employed his old caddie, Ian Finnis.

It was a slow process as Fleetwood, at one stage down to No. 188 in the rankings, rebuilt his swing with Thompson and started afresh with Finnis, his long-time friend. But things started to improve in the second half of 2016, with Fleetwood earning regular top-20 finishes on the European Tour.

The break for Christmas, coming soon after a third-place finish in Hong Kong, arrived at the wrong time but belief had returned to Fleetwood's game and his first event of 2017 could be a career-changer.

On Sunday, the 26-year-old Fleetwood topped what could be the strongest field of the year on the European Tour to win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship by a shot. His swing held up in the most trying of circumstances in the final round, with major champions Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer also in contention on a crammed leaderboard.

''It's been an awkward curve,'' he said after picking up a winner's check of $450,000 and the huge Falcon Trophy for finishing at 17 under. ''The only thing left was, `Let's get a win' ... Just shows a lot can happen in golf.''

There's plenty more to look forward to for Fleetwood, who woke Monday ranked No. 53. The top 50 is the promised land for players of Fleetwood's stature, as it would guarantee a trip to the Masters if they are there in late March.

Fleetwood has never played at Augusta National.

''I have to stay on it really,'' he said. ''You don't want to be hanging around. I got to No. 47 once and I dropped out very quickly ... I want to get as high as I can.''

It will help that there appears to be a resurgence in English golf. It's two titles in two weeks for English players to open 2017 on the European Tour, after Graeme Storm's victory at the SA Open following a playoff win over Rory McIlroy.

Danny Willett is the current Masters champion, Matt Fitzpatrick won the World Tour Championship at the end of last year, and Justin Rose is the Olympic champion.

Fleetwood, a former No. 1-ranked amateur, has the game to stay in the top echelons of golf. He hit 66 greens in regulation in Abu Dhabi and his driving - long for a 5-foot-11 player with his slender frame - was back to its best, with 70 percent accuracy and averaging 302.93 yards.

Perhaps most importantly for Fleetwood, he's happy again.

''Me and Ian make little goals, and one of them (in Abu Dhabi) was to smile. So it worked,'' he said. ''I'm going to put it in next week's now. The more you smile and the more you have a good time, the better things are going to be. It's obvious, but it' hard to do when things aren't going great.''

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