There’s something in the air at Royal Birkdale, a sense that the waiting could be over and a stirring of latent local expectation. Whisper it quietly but the English are coming.
It’s a quarter of a century since Sir Nick Faldo became the last Englishman to lift the Claret Jug, with a dramatic victory at Muirfield.
And it’s nearly half a century – 48 years to be precise – since an English golfer won The Open on an English course, when Tony Jacklin triumphed just a few miles up the coast at Lytham St Annes.
No home player has taken the spoils in the nine previous Opens staged here but could this
be the year to end the drought, with few generating more column inches in the build-up than local lad Tommy Fleetwood.
Fleetwood, a former English amateur champion, admits he used to creep onto the course in the early morning to play a few holes before the members spotted him.
Nine years ago he reached the final of the Amateur Championship, with the prize a place in the field for the last Open played at a golf club where his Dad still walks the dog.
But he lost in the final to Holland’s Reinier Saxton – and ended up watching Pádraig Harrington win on the television at the family home just a few big tee-shots away.
However, Fleetwood won’t be sneaking anywhere this week, arriving as one of the world’s most in-form players and aware that the script is teed up for a fairytale ending.
He has risen 170 places in the world rankings since last autumn, after winning the Abu Dhabi Championship and the recent Open de France.
And then there is his second place behind world number one Dustin Johnson at the WGC-Mexico Championship and fourth place at last month’s US Open.
“25 years since an English winner, it’s about time that changed, isn’t it?” said Fleetwood.
“I can’t believe it’s been that long to be honest. English golf is in such a strong position right now so it should only be a matter of time. I hope it’s me that breaks the spell.
“Missing out in 2008 was harsh, I wasn’t able to sleep back then knowing it was at Royal Birkdale. I’ve got pictures of me there as a little kid with my dad, Pete, just around the fields hitting a ball.
“I think it’s going to be brilliant. The fans are a noisy lot from around here and that’s really going to add to the atmosphere. It’s going to be a week I’m never going to forget, that’s for sure.
“A lot of people say it’s the best Open venue, even people who aren’t as biased as me. You hear it a lot, about the course and about the town, it’s right up there with St Andrews.
“Put that together with one of the best golf courses in the world and it’s going to be a cracking scene. It’s going to be a great Open.”
Success for Fleetwood would be a worthy addition to the celebrated history of these championships but there are other stories just as easy to write.
It’s 19 years since a 17-year-old amateur named Justin Rose holed a wedge shot on the 18th to finish in a tie for fourth – which, remarkably, remains his best Open finish.
He’s got the game, winning the US Open four years ago, last year’s Olympics in Rio and narrowly losing out to Sergio Garcia at this year’s Masters.
And there is certainly a symmetry to success.
“When I came back in 2008, everyone wanted to talk about 1998 but I’m just focussed on this Open,” he said.
“In 2017 I’m looking to reidentify myself by winning these major championships, because I can’t let these years slip by.
“The young players are hard to beat but they are beatable and The Open at Birkdale would be a pretty special place to do it.”
And then there’s a resurgent Ian Poulter, who came through final qualifying at Woburn last month, and returns to a course where he finished second to Harrington nine years ago.
“Going back to Birkdale after what happened in 2008 is going to be very special, it’s just a shame that Padraig decided to go bananas on the last five holes!” said the five-time Ryder Cup winner.
“It was still a great week and Birkdale is my favourite Open venue.”
That Open remains Poulter’s best but could Lee Westwood, who tied for second seven years ago at St Andrews, keep the run of first time major winners going?
And then there’s the new names, with former leading amateur Matt Fitzpatrick and fan favourite Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnson upbeat about their chances too.
But the last word should go to Fleetwood, who would be a real home from home winner in the days ahead.
“To win The Open at Birkdale would be the ultimate,” he said. “Doing it anywhere is a dream but to win it five minutes from where you grew up, there would be nothing more special than that.”
The 146th Open takes place from 16-23 July at Royal Birkdale. Tickets can be purchased on the gates or at www.TheOpen.com/tickets
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