Tommy Fleetwood (Getty Images)
Amateur starlet Tommy Fleetwood enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a superb round of 66 to grab a share of the lead with Scotland’s Callum Macaulay in the early stages on day one of the inaugural English Challenge.
Fleetwood received an invitation to play at the Nordea Scandinavia Masters on The European Tour this week but opted instead to play on the Challenge Tour, and the decision looked an inspired one as he set a new course record at the stunning Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf and Spa near Colchester, Essex.
A product of the English Golf Union, who are Official Partners to the €150,000 event, the 19 year old from Lancashire is currently England’s leading amateur, and he showed precisely why with a burst of birdies on his back nine to finish on six under par.
After opening with a double bogey on the tenth hole due to a wayward drive, Fleetwood rallied impressively with three birdies to reach the turn in level par.
Gains at the first, second, fourth and sixth holes swiftly followed, and he closed with another two birdies to come home in just 30.
Fleetwood, who was a member of England’s triumphant team at the recent European Amateur Championship, said: “A double at the first obviously wasn’t the ideal start for me! I pulled my tee shot left then went for a shot with my second that might only come off three times out of ten, and unfortunately it failed miserably. But after that things picked up, and on my back nine I could’ve come home in 28, because I missed a couple of makeable birdie putts. But obviously finishing with three threes was a bit of a bonus, especially as they’re not easy holes.
“Probably the most difficult thing out there is judging your distance control, because the ball’s running for miles on the hard fairways. Even when I wasn’t catching my drives it was going about 330 yards, so it makes you feel pretty good! It means you’re using a lot of wedges for your approach shots, so if you’re short game’s working well and you’re putting well, then you’re probably going to make a lot of birdies.
“Even though he didn’t have the best of days it was good playing with Matt [Haines], who I obviously know very well, and also Alessandro Tadini, who won last week. Me and Matt had basically spent the last three years together but hadn’t seen each other for a while, so it was good to catch up. He didn’t have the best of days, but it was still interesting to watch him and see how his game has changed and developed since he turned pro.
“He’s taken to professional life brilliantly, so I can take a lot of encouragement from that. I’m looking at turning pro in August, then I’ll probably take my chances at Qualifying School – unless I can ‘do a Rory’ and earn enough money to get my card through invites! But that’s to worry about another day. All I’m thinking about at the moment is playing well again tomorrow – if I can shoot another 66, then I’ll be in a pretty good position going into the weekend.”
Whilst Fleetwood is making his first Challenge appearance of the season, Macaulay is playing his eighth consecutive tournament.
But the Scot showed few signs of fatigue with a rousing round which included seven birdies – four of which came at the par fives – and a solitary bogey at the testing 11th hole.
He said: “I hardly put a foot wrong, and anytime you manage to keep a five off your card, you know you’ve had a pretty good day. I holed two or three decent par putts at crucial times to keep my momentum going, and then made the most of my birdie chances as and when they came along. It was nice to sink a few putts for a change, because I feel as though I’ve been playing well without getting the rewards for it. I’ve been hitting a lot of greens over the last few weeks, but not scoring as low as I should’ve done. So it’s been frustrating.
“But it helps that the greens here are exactly like the ones I’ve grown up playing on. I raced a few past, but managed to hole them coming back. It’s always nice to shoot a 66, but it’s even better to do it on the first day and put yourself into a decent position. I’ve got a couple of weeks off because we haven’t got any tournaments coming up, so hopefully I can go out with a bang. I’m currently 78th in the Rankings, so I need to move up a few places to get into the Rolex Trophy – that’s one of the main aims of the week.”
Antti Ahokas is outside the top 100 of the Rankings after a disappointing campaign to date, but a 67 – his lowest opening round of the season – moved him into a share of third place alongside the English trio of Daniel Brooks, Matt Cort and James Heath.
The Flamboyant Finn went out of bounds with his second shot on the third hole, but came home with a trio of threes to banish those painful memories.
Ahokas said: “I knifed my bunker shot on the third over the back of the green and out of bounds, so that wasn’t the best of starts. But I didn’t get mad with myself, and got my rewards with the three threes at the end, which was a very nice way to finish. It hasn’t happened for a while, because I’ve not had the best of seasons to say the least. But I’ve been working hard with my new swing coach in London, and it seems to be paying off.”
Were it not for a seven on the second, Heath might have been the outright leader. But in the end he had to settle for a round of 67, the same score as his compatriots Brooks and Cort.