Tommy Fleetwood’s army out in force but home favourite loses ground | The Open

You could see the black cloud coming over the horizon. It wasn’t rain (though there was enough of that), nor a collection of anything menacing like hornets; it was just a phalanx of monochrome waterproofs rolling irresistibly up the side of the fairway.

This was Tommy Fleetwood’s army, the thousands of people who flocked to Hoylake on Saturday to support the local lad, second on the leaderboard overnight, as he staged his attempt to get within touching distance of the Claret Jug. He’d called for them, and they were there, now he had to play his part.

It’s a complicated relationship between athlete and crowd and the intimate nature of the Open only makes the dynamic more intense. When not marching through the fringes of the rough, fans were offering voluble support to the man from Southport, but also the odd spot of caddying. “Nice line from there, Tommy lad”; “Good angle, Tommy lad”. And then there were the contributions that were involuntary too, like the groans or the sighs.

Speaking before the tournament Fleetwood said the fervent attention of what could feel like all of Merseyside behind that yellow rope was a “blessing, not a burden”. Speaking after his blistering opening round on Thursday Fleetwood defined the relationship with the fans as one of equals. “I am one of them, one of the guys that’s out there,” he said. “I’m a fan of the game. I’m from this area. Yes, I feel at home, and to feel that support, it means a lot.”

That night, Fleetwood sent out an injunction from his Twitter account, asking for “more of the same” from the fans. Following Friday’s tepid 71, however, the message was more plaintive. “Louder tomorrow for the local lads, please,” he wrote, posting a photo of himself alongside caddy Ian Finnis, who hails from Crosby in north Merseyside.

As it turned out, the atmosphere at the Royal Liverpool was markedly more subdued on the Open’s third day. It was obvious as to why, the sunshine of Thursday and Friday had been replaced by persistent cloud and not infrequent rain. There was little hope for those wanting to linger and enjoy themselves; pushing on and focusing on the play was more the order of the day.

There was another wrinkle to take into account, perhaps, too. The fact that it was a Saturday and that those who couldn’t get out of work could now be in attendance. Maybe this made for a change in the makeup of the crowd, perhaps it watched the play with a little more of a demanding eye.

Tommy Fleetwood prepares to play his tee shot on the 4th on Saturday
Tommy Fleetwood prepares to play his tee shot on the 4th on Saturday. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

Either way it started out well enough. When Fleetwood missed a birdie chance on the first hole, a small “ooh” of disappointment was followed by a loud roar of encouragement and he went on to birdie the second. His partner in this final group, Brian Harman, who had started the day some five shots ahead of the Englishman, bogeyed two of the first four holes. The mood was buoyant. Jokes were being cracked from the sideline, someone shouted “go on Tommy Lad” from the top of a scoreboard.

There was some question before the round began as to whether the intensity of the backing for Fleetwood might get to Harman. It felt like this was the moment we would find out. But it turned out support was never so partisan as to exclude appreciation for the American, as these fans like golf more than they like any one player and as Harman stabilised and, at the fifth, sank a wonderful wobbling putt from the back of the green, they got behind him too.

As Harman found his form, so Tommy lost his grip. The roars of defiance as he missed a putting chance on the 6th became polite applause by the time the same thing happened on the 10th and the 11th. Harman meanwhile was motoring, claiming back-to-back birdies on the 12th and 13th.

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Fleetwood’s form didn’t improve as the holes began to run out and the support began to sound more like something historically familiar in British sport; the articulation of sympathy for one of our own who wasn’t quite going to make it.

Carl and Danny, two building contractors, were following Tommy around the course. Danny hailed from Moreton some five miles away and said he liked Fleetwood’s unpretentious style and the fact he seemed to welcome the support. But most of all “I like him because he’s a Blue.”

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For Carl the relationship was even simpler. “It’s geographical, nothing else,” he said. “We don’t have anything else in common. We’re builders, he’s a pro golfer, the money is worlds apart. It’s just geographical.”

Fleetwood finished the day at five under, some seven strokes behind Harman, who retained his lead in the clubhouse. It seems an impossible task for a Merseysider to win the Open on home turf now, but there remains local interest to the end. And if Fleetwood’s tournament has come up short then Matthew Jordan, the Royal Liverpool Golf Club member who goes into Sunday an impressive three under par, might be in receipt of the odd “go on Matty lad” too.