Fleetwood holds off major champions to win in Abu Dhabi
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Tommy Fleetwood looked at the leaderboard and saw three of the biggest names in golf among the players hunting him down in the final holes of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Sunday.
Rather than unnerve the Englishman, it spurred him on.
Fleetwood produced his best stretch of golf all week when it mattered most, a back nine of 31 completing a 5-under 67 - the lowest score of the day - and a one-shot victory over the strongest field that the European Tour compiles.
Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer, all recent major winners, couldn't keep up with Fleetwood, who ended his 3+-year wait for a second European Tour title.
''At the end of the day, they are world beaters,'' the 26-year-old Fleetwood said. ''They know how to get it done and they know what they are doing when they get up there.
''It's a very big deal to prove yourself against some of the world's best.''
For Fleetwood, a victory was due after a strong run of results since September, which was sparked by a return to his old caddie and his former coach. He just didn't see it coming here, where he'd missed the cut in four of the previous years.
In a tense final round during which five players held either the outright lead or a share of the lead, Fleetwood made his move at the par-5 10th hole when he chipped in for eagle from 20 yards to get within a shot of first place.
He rolled in a 10-footer for birdie at No. 11 to tie the lead with Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand and wasn't out of the lead through to the 18th hole. Holding a one-stroke advantage, Fleetwood pulled his drive into the spectators but got relief and a nice lie from his drop. He smashed a 3-wood downwind toward the green, shouting at the ball as it flew through the air, and it settled more than 300 yards later in the heart of the putting surface.
''I just had a go at it,'' Fleetwood said. ''You've got to take those chances if you want to win.''
His putt for eagle slid three feet by, but he made no mistake coming back and only an eagle from Pablo Larrazabal in the final group behind could deny Fleetwood. When the 2014 champion's third shot came up short, Fleetwood - distinctive with his long, flowing hair - celebrated with his team behind the 18th green.
His winning score was 17-under-par 271.
''You know (if) you keep knocking on the door, it would come,'' said Fleetwood, who had 10 top-20 finishes in 12 events stretching back to September. ''I didn't really think it would be this week.''
This win will lift him from a ranking of No. 102 to near the top 50. His career-high ranking was 47th in July 2015, after which he changed his swing - hoping, in his words, ''it would make me a world-class golfer'' - and got stuck in a rut.
Fleetwood's only previous win came at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in August 2013.
Johnson, the U.S. Open champion, holed a 20-foot eagle putt at the last for a 68 and a share of second place with Larrazabal on 16 under. Kaymer (69), a three-time winner in Abu Dhabi, also eagled No. 18 and was in a three-way share for 4th place with Aphibarnrat and Bernd Wiesberger.
Kaymer led on his own for two holes before dropping three shots in a five-hole stretch around the turn.
Stenson (69) was tied for eighth on 13 under.
Playing his first event in the Middle East, Johnson started the final round in the last group, one shot behind third-round leader Tyrrell Hatton, and on the back of a 64 on Saturday. However, he didn't make his first birdie until No. 8 - remarkably that was his first birdie on a par-5 hole all week for the long-hitting American - and his strong finish of two birdies and an eagle in his final six holes came too late.
''I struck the ball well and gave myself plenty of opportunities,'' the third-ranked Johnson said. ''I just didn't roll any putts in.''
Larrazabal was seeking his second win here in three years and provided more energy on the course than any other player, pumping his fists and skipping across the putting green after a 35-footer for birdie for No. 14, a chip-in in from the fringe at No. 14 to briefly tie the lead, and a 20-foot putt for birdie at No. 17 to draw within one stroke of Fleetwood.
Steve Douglas is at twitter.com/sdouglas80