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Tommy Fleetwood doesn't have to sneak onto Royal Birkdale anymore

Tommy Fleetwood doesn't have to sneak onto Royal Birkdale anymore
England's Tommy Fleetwood plays off the 15th tee during a practice round at Royal Birkdale golf course on July 18. (Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images)

Tommy Fleetwood once had a goal of going entirely unnoticed at Royal Birkdale.

Fleetwood, born and raised in the coastal resort town of Southport, used to sneak onto the exclusive golf course — site of the British Open this week — if only to furtively play a few holes. He and his father, Pete, would wait until late afternoon, when the members were at the bar, to tiptoe onto these hallowed grounds with a few clubs in hand.

"You can't sneak on the places that we used to sneak on anymore," said Fleetwood, 26, whose shoulder-length curly hair hints at his playfully rebellious side. "The fifth [hole] was the place that used to be a lot more open, and it's got fences and bushes there now, so that's gone. You can't even get on to watch the Open now."

No more flying under the radar, and for good reason. Fleetwood, who won his first tournament in 2013 then went three years without winning another, is in the midst of his most successful year and is one of the vogue picks this week. He won at Abu Dhabi in January, finished fourth in the U.S. Open, and earlier this month won the Open de France. He was No. 99 in World Rankings to start the year, and has climbed all the way to 14.

"Recent results have clearly put me in the eye and made people talk about me as a chance," he said. "I've won a couple of times this year. This is still The Open and there's so many things that go into it."

Weather is often a factor. The first part of the week has been warm and sunny, but that familiar rain is forecast to roll in by the end of the week.

Of the 30 major championships this decade, there have been 16 first-time major winners, including the last seven in a row: Brooks Koepka (2017 U.S. Open), Sergio Garcia (2017 Masters), Jimmy Walker (2016 PGA), Henrik Stenson (2016 British Open), Dustin Johnson (2016 U.S. Open), Danny Willett (2016 Masters), and Jason Day (2015 PGA).

It underscores how many strong competitors are at the top of the game, and how wide open majors have become.

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"I think that it's just one of those waves that happen," Garcia said. "It's nice to see that. I would love to stop that trend, like I'm sure a lot of other guys would love to do the same thing. But it shows the quality of golf that everybody plays at right now."

For Fleetwood in particular, Birkdale is a magical place. He was a 7-year-old spectator when Mark O'Meara won here in 1998, and remembers a fleeting encounter with a skyrocketing phenom.

“I remember Tiger Woods walking right past me,” he said. “That’s the first time I’d ever seen Tiger Woods, and the aura around him at the time.”

Fleetwood, now looking to be the first Englishman to win the Open since Nick Faldo at Muirfield a quarter-century ago, was just another young face in the crowd.

"I didn't get many autographs," he said. "I spent the time walking and faking them in my little book."

These days, he shares top billing with the hottest players in the game, among them Americans Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka. Fleetwood’s face is on lamp posts all over his hometown, a central part of the local advertising push.

"Just to be here is great," he said. "I think this week it's going to be an experience I'll never forget. It's very rare that you get a tournament this close to home.

"It will be great to have all those people out there rooting for you. It doesn't happen all the time when you have that many people, and they all want you to do well."

These days, Fleetwood is living out in the country, about an hour's drive away. He and his fiancé, Clare Craig, who doubles as his manager, are expecting a baby in October. His folks live right around the corner from Birkdale, and, he said, "I'm sure my mom would be happy to have me around again."

As for his dad? His old partner in mischief when it came to sneaking onto Birkdale?

"My dad's the same as he's always been," Fleetwood said. "He's more interested in his own golf half the time. He's down to [a 10 handicap] again… There's nothing bad about calling my dad after [winning in] France…. There's nothing better because you've made him proud."

That goes for an entire town. Fleetwood was invited back to his old school recently and the students unfurled a big banner wishing him luck. Not everyone recognizes him in Southport, though. He can still slide by with some measure of anonymity.

"I got recognized at the market the other day, but 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."

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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