Interview with Tommy Fleetwood at 2021 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, we spoke to two-time winner Tommy Fleetwood about his chances this week and the possibility of winning a major championship this year.

Tommy, runner-up here last year, and two-time winner, how happy are you to be back in Abu Dhabi for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and starting your 2021 campaign?

Yeah, I think it’s always been, I guess even since I’ve been playing both tours, I think this has been a pretty stable part of my schedule.

I think it’s a great way to start the year. Everybody seems to like coming out to the Middle East just after Christmas and new year, do some practise, and you come out here and you have some great tournaments to start the year.

Yeah, it was never really a course that, you know, gave me much pleasure, really. I missed a lot of cuts to start off with and all of the sudden in 2017, things kind of turned around and I started hitting good golf shots around the golf course.

I’ve been on a lovely run in this event.

I think everybody is like this a little bit, whenever you start the year, doesn’t matter whether you had two weeks off, a month off two, months off, there’s always that bit of uncertainty that you haven’t played for a bit, it’s the start of a new year and you’re not quite sure what you’re going to turn up with.

Yeah, I’ve been lucky that I’ve played well to start the year the last few years but you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen but I feel good. I think it’s great, and given the current climate of the world, we’re out here in the sun playing golf every day in a beautiful place, it’s lovely.

You have five top-ten finishes in recent Rolex Series events. What is it about these events that bring out the best in you?

I don’t know, I guess I never really think of it that way. I guess you just turn up to play. I’ve put myself in contention in a lot of events. I think that one I didn’t finish Top-10 might have been Wentworth or something, and I was doing really well there, as well.

I guess there’s a certain level of experience I guess plays a part in Rolex Series Events when you find yourself up there on a Sunday. But yeah, I guess just prepared and played well in some of the bigger events, and I would like to convert some of them into wins, but at the same time, they are good performances.

Yeah, like consistency is something that I pride myself on most of the time, and if I can keep doing that just nudge those results even further in the right direction, then great.

Obviously you’ve had some great success out here and you’ve had two very near misses in the majors. Is that one of the things you’d like to change this season and maybe get over the line?

Yeah, well, I’m obviously never going to answer that one with a no. I think, yeah, you’re always looking at where your career is at, what the next stages are and what your goals are. I think first of all, I didn’t win last year. I didn’t particularly play how I wanted to for a lot of it, but I did play a lot of good golf, as well. But I didn’t win. I would like to be a winner again, at least once, whether that be majors, European Tour events, PGA Tour events, I just want to get back in the winner’s circle.

Majors are your career-changers. And I think this year, I have planned the schedule a little bit more around the majors than in the last couple of years, so I’m going to try and prepare them in what I feel is the best way possible for me and then back myself to play well in those tournaments.

But those, without question, are your career-defining tournaments I guess in a way, or I guess that’s something everybody always looks at.

Yeah, I’ve had a couple of seconds, another top five. I’ve been in contention a few times after two rounds or three rounds, and I think what I want to keep doing is again, goes back to the word consistency, keep being up there and keep putting myself up there and playing well, and if I keep doing it for the right things, keep improving bit by bit then hopefully that’s just a natural progress and I win a major.

But at the same time, there’s been a lot of great golfers in the history of the game who haven’t won a major. I’m not going to say that I don’t care because I really do, but you know, you have to keep things in perspective, and it’s not always a given but I’ll definitely be trying my hardest.

Can you elaborate further on how you’re planning to tweak your schedule? Given the unique circumstances right now in the world, that must dictate it?

Well, I’m trying to have a week off before every major and then play the week before that. I feel like that’s a good run into the events for me. So I think just working backwards on the schedule that way is something I’ve done a little bit different. That’s really the main point, really.

It’s not necessarily going to, I didn’t really look at the schedule and go, oh, I love these courses or I want to play here or I want to do that. I kind of did it backwards and then went from there. That’s the main change. I’ll see how that goes, and go from there.

You know, it’s a funny one, really, because no matter what tournaments you pick, no matter where you choose to play, no matter how you choose to do it, you just have to back yourself to play well every week that you play. You either play well and have a good season or you don’t play well and that’s that, and you move on and try and improve.

I’ve done it that way, and then we’ll see how that goes, and then it’s down to me, really.

You’ve got a big prize fund to play for this week. At what point on a golfer’s journey does the money become irrelevant, or is it always relevant?

A bit of both, I guess. I don’t think — I don’t think anybody ever — well, they do, but it’s very rare that somebody wins a tournament if it’s their first European Tour event or their first major or their first PGA Tour event or their first Rolex Series Event and says, oh, that’s great, I’ve won this event. I think winning the title means more than that.

Yeah, look, like money is a very good side of it, and we’re lucky that we play a game that brings with it a lot of — you know, if you play well, it brings a lot of financial benefits to it. You know, without a doubt, without a doubt, life with money, people prefer it probably.

For me, I care about it. I like investing back into my game and my sport, so I feel like I spend it well. I like being able to give my family what they want. I like being in a nice house. I like going on nice holidays, whatever it may be.

So yes, the money does mean something, but I don’t think in terms of performance and when I’m out there on the golf course, like this week, for instance, I’m not going to go out there and think, I really want the — it’s great that this is a big prize fund, I really want to play for this amount. I’m really not going to be in that frame of mind at all. But yeah, we’re lucky that we live in a world where there are financial benefits.

We’re still in a spell with no or limited spectators at tournaments. Can I ask in a competitive sense, is that a big adjustment for you? Do you like it? Is it something you get used to? And how do you deal with it?

Well, I think the first thing is it’s different. I think playing in the tournaments, especially on a Sunday, I feel like it is a different environment to play in when you’re in contention.

Each moment, good or bad, I feel like in sport, the crowds and the spectators play a big part in it because the high moments, they make them even higher and the low ones, you can feel them as well, and whatever else is going on on the golf course, you can hear that. So I think it does make a difference, crowds not being there.

Having said that, you know, we have to stand there and we have a golf club and a golf ball and target and grass, and all those things are the same whether there’s people there or not. All that side of it, we should be there and be able to do exactly what we do as normal.

But I do think in sport, and it’s not just golf. I think in football it makes a difference. I think sports where there are not spectators, it does play a role and makes it a bit different. It’s a hard one, really. You don’t want to make excuses like if there is crowds or not, really. It’s down to you to play golf. But I think, yeah, sport without crowds is very different and the sooner we can get them back, the better.

What’s the lesson you’ve learned from the Justin Thomas affair?

Well, I don’t know whether there is one for anybody that wasn’t in the situation, really. I think it was — look, it’s not a great set of circumstances. You know, for Justin, it doesn’t make me like him anymore or less because he said one thing, but I think Justin has a chance to grow from that. I think he’s done something not great in a very, very public domain. It’s just not a good situation.

But I wasn’t involved. I’m thousands and thousands of miles away. I can see what’s happened, and you know, yeah, it wasn’t great, but like I say, it doesn’t change my opinion of Justin. I know him and I’ve been out here enough and played with him.

So it’s just a difficult sort of set of circumstances for everybody involved in that, and what are the right and wrong decisions by his sponsors or whatever that is, it’s nothing to do with me or any of the golf or any of the sponsor. It’s down to them, and that’s it, really. You know, life goes on.

Did part of you think, wow, there but for the grace of God go I; microphones can be very intrusive.

Well, yeah, look, there’s positives and negatives about being able to hear what we’re saying out on the golf course. I think as a viewer, you want to be able to hear things. I think it gives an amazing insight into the game. Yeah, look, it wasn’t good, and I’m sure he felt very, very bad about it, like it’s not — it’s definitely not what he probably would have wanted to say or wanted to happen.

So look, that’s the world we live in. It’s difficult to — yeah, it’s difficult. People can hear everything, and you’re on the stage the whole time to set an example. Like one minor slip, I mean, look, how long does it take? A second? Two seconds? And then things change rapidly.

So that’s the game. But Justin will learn and grow and that’s part of life, as well.

Your proposed schedule looks like you won’t play in The Scottish Open at Renaissance, and if not, will you play in the Irish previous to the Scottish?

Yeah, I think — well, I answered that. This year I worked my schedule backwards from the majors, and I said I felt like the best way for me to play was to play two weeks before, have a week off and then go into the major.

It’s difficult. Like especially around the summer, you have so many great events, but around every major you have great events and you always have to make the choice of playing and missing some and doing what you think is whatever the way you want to work it. You know, what’s the best preparation and how you want to do it.

So if the Scottish Open was two weeks before and The Irish Open was the week before, then it would be the other way around. And it’s fallen like that. I clearly enjoyed Renaissance, as well. Played great there. Staying on site was amazing. You know, it was actually my best event of the year.

So that’s just one of the things that’s happened this year, and we’ll see what happens in the future.

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