SOUTHPORT, England — The last time they played a British Open at Royal Birkdale, Tommy Fleetwood was a scrawny kid who was sneaking onto the course to play, hoping no one would notice him as a non-member and boot him from the premises.
Fleetwood won’t encounter any such issue this week.
The 26-year-old Englishman from nearby in Southport will sneak up on no one at this week’s British Open at Birkdale. You don’t sneak up on anyone when you’re one of the favorites to win the tournament, and it is being played in your backyard.
What Fleetwood is about to encounter this week is something magical that doesn’t come around very often — for any athlete in any sport.
It is the equivalent of a kid growing up dreaming of being a baseball player, sneaking into Yankee Stadium to take a few cuts at home plate with his buddies, then years later returning to play there as a major leaguer, hitting home runs over the right-field wall.
It is the equivalent of a kid with big-time tennis aspirations, growing up outside the walls of Wimbledon, sneaking onto the grass courts as a youth, pretending to be Borg or Federer, then years later actually playing a tournament match on Centre Court.
It is the equivalent of a kid with basketball dreams, growing up near Madison Square Garden, sneaking into the building with pals to shoot free throws or have a game of 2-on-2, then years later playing at the Garden wearing a Knicks uniform.
“Growing up, I mean, when I was very little, it was Royal Birkdale, isn’t it?’’ Fleetwood said Monday after playing a practice round. “If you ask anybody playing this week that’s been here before, they’ll say it’s one of the best courses in the world, very arguably the best Open venue. If you live five minutes away, you’re going to try to get on when you can.’’
Fleetwood’s dad, Pete, used to sneak the two of them onto the course. Father of the Year.
“We always went on late enough when the members were in the bar,’’ Fleetwood recalled. “Dad was far too clever for them to catch us.”
Once Fleetwood came clean about his illegal forays onto the championship course, the club showed some personality and sense of humor by sending out a message from its Twitter account @RoyalBirkdale_ that requested “unpaid retrospective green fees.”
“It was a course I would have crept on now and again,’’ Fleetwood said. “It’s where The Open is … and now I’m playing.’’
Not only is Fleetwood playing, he is playing as well as anyone in the 156-player field, having won the Open de France two weeks ago, finished fourth at the U.S. Open last month and tied for sixth at the BMW International in Germany last month.
Fleetwood, based on recent form, was going to be the dark horse favorite of many. Throw in where the tournament is being played and, well …
Nevertheless, Fleetwood showed his sense of humor, self-deprecating his new-found star power.
“I got recognized at the market the other day, but no, nothing that spectacular,’’ he said. “There’s nobody fainting in the street as I walk past. So I’m still waiting for those days to come.’’
A win this week, capturing his first career major championship on the course he grew up sneaking onto, though?
That’ll change things.
“Yeah, I thought about winning the Open since I was 5 years old,’’ he said. “Recent results have clearly put me in the eye and made people talk about me as a chance. It’s nice to be spoke of in that light, to be honest. I find it very flattering. It’s very nice and makes me smile, really.’’
Fleetwood — who is engaged to his manager, Clare Craig — has vivid memories of the 1998 Open at Birkdale, when Mark O’Meara defeated Brian Watts in a playoff.
“Ninety-eight was my first Open I went to watch,’’ he said. “I remember Tiger Woods walking past me. That was the first time I’d ever seen Tiger Woods, and the aura around him at the time. In 2008 [the last time the Open was played at Birkdale], I was 17 and had finished runner-up in the previous month’s Amateur Championship with only the winner qualifying for the Open. I couldn’t watch, not even on the telly. I hated it being there and me not. So I didn’t really watch much of it, because I was in a sulk because I didn’t get to play it.
“So it’s good that I made this one.’’
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