• Despite moments of hope, Tommy Fleetwood was never quite able to shake the feeling that he was a shot short after his record-tying round.
By Joan Niesen
June 17, 2018

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — A few minutes after 4 p.m. on Sunday, Ian Finnis leaned against a metal barricade near the clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills. Phone to ear, Tommy Fleetwood’s caddy talked through the logistics of a flight he thought he might miss. Finnis had started out the day carrying the bag of a golfer who was six strokes off the tournament lead, effectively out of the running. Fleetwood’s traveling party—including his manager, who happens to also be his wife, and his nine-month-old son Franklin—figured their nighttime flight would be a safe bet to catch.

Four hours and a U.S. Open record-tying score of 63 later, Fleetwood could only bide his time after teeing off more than two hours before Sunday’s final group. When he signed his scorecard, he was a stroke behind eventual-champion Brooks Koepka and tied with Dustin Johnson—and on a course as fickle as Shinnecock had been all weekend, a two-hole playoff or an outright Fleetwood victory was still in play. Meanwhile, Koepka and Johnson were wrapping up the course’s front nine.

What unfolded next was nearly three hours of waiting, most of them spent away from television cameras with his family in the player hospitality area. Fleetwood ate a sandwich and played with his son, tracking the progress of the tournament’s final pairs down holes he’d parred, parred, birdied, birdied, birdied, birdied, parred, parred and then parred again. “I felt fine,” the 27-year-old said once his fate as the U.S. OpenA’s runner-up had been solidified. “I just always felt like I was one shy. And then Brooks kept giving me, like, that little bit of hope, and then [would] hole in a putt, just to stab you in the stomach a little bit.”

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Fleetwood didn’t summon his caddy and bag to the practice area until after Koepka’s tee shot on No. 17. No matter the spikes of optimism, he’d never been able to shake the belief that he’d come up a shot short. Worse than placing second, though, would’ve been being surprised by a playoff he’d been too stubborn to prepare for. With Fleetwood on the driving range, Koepka parred Shinnecock’s 17th hole, and he teed off on 18 with a two-stroke lead. All his final-hole bogey did was bring him one stroke closer to Fleetwood—proving the runner-up right. He was, in fact, one shy, a fact that could have tortured Fleetwood after he missed an eight-foot putt on No. 18. A birdie there would have been his ninth of the day and, it would turn out, have given him a share of the lead after 72 holes. But Fleetwood, whose best finish before Sunday in a major was a tie for fourth last year at Erin Hills, wasn’t fussing over the details of his finish once he learned his fate and spoke to the media. There were dozens of other putts he could have scrutinized over the course of the weekend, which saw him shoot scores that ranged from Sunday’s 63 to Saturday’s 78. “I’ve beaten everybody,” he said, “except one player in one of the biggest events in the world.”

With his score Sunday, Fleetwood became only the second player to shoot 63 in a final round of the U.S. Open. The first: Johnny Miller, who in 1973 at Oakmont was also six back of the leader when he teed off on Sunday. Since then, four players have shot 63 in the tournament, but never in its final round. The most recent: Justin Thomas last year at the overall low-scoring Erin Hills, which posted a plaque in his honor. Miller won the Open after his record-setting day, and Jack Nicklaus did the same in 1980 three days after his 63, and though Fleetwood is in good company among those who fell short—Thomas, Vijay Singh, Tom Weiskopf—he did so in the most gut-wrenching way, flirting with a playoff until the final minutes.

Fleetwood’s second-place finish came off a round in which he did what he always does when his game is humming. For most of the weekend, he drove the ball reasonably far and astonishingly accurately. Sunday, he hit 93% of fairways—the field as a whole averaged 73%—and he led all players over the tournament’s four rounds with 86% of fairways hit. He’s never going to out-drive the game’s strongest players—for comparison, Koepka averaged 318.3 yards per drive to Fleetwood’s 307.3—but his shots off the tee are going to land where he wants them, and probably farther than most would imagine his slight, 5’11” frame capable.

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Fleetwood’s accuracy, and the mere inches he came from forcing a playoff—11.4 from the hole, to be precise, on his penultimate putt—make his perspective at the end all the more impressive. Sure, it helped that he’d had three hours to ruminate on his silver medal, which a USGA employee delivered to little fanfare at the end of his media session. And for as pleased as Fleetwood was, he didn’t mistake Sunday for any kind of arrival. A year after receiving his PGA Tour card, he was pleasantly surprised with his reception at Shinnecock, especially as he marched toward the 18th green after an exacting six-iron shot. With his chin-length hair, scruffy beard and a frame that looks more jockey than pro golfer—at first glance, you wonder if he isn’t just an SEC football fan who wandered off from Times Square—Fleetwood wins fans easily. This year, he’s become a known quantity among golf enthusiasts in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to settle yet.

“I’ve not won a major, and I’ve not won a Ryder Cup, so [my dreams are] not reality yet,” Fleetwood said. “I think it’s nice as a golfer to have that hard work start paying off, to get yourself up there, and hopefully for me this is just stages that I’m going through to eventually start winning majors.”

“Now there’s only one [thing] I can do from here, and that’s win one.”

Medal received, Fleetwood made the media rounds as Koepka received his trophy a few yards up the hill. His wife, Clare, stood nearby, greeting acquaintances, checking the time. No playoff, but there was still a plane that would take off without them. As her husband moved on to yet another well-wisher, a tournament staffer walked over to Clare. With all the money her husband had just made (roughly $1.3 million), he said with a laugh, they might be able to afford a later flight.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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Double Bogey (+2)