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Local lad Fleetwood back at Birkdale as an Open contender

(AP Photo/Dave Thompson)

By STEVE DOUGLAS

AP Sports Writer

SOUTHPORT, England (AP) He is the poster boy of the upcoming British Open, his flowing hair and stubbly face adorning the banners draped across lamp-posts on the approaches to Royal Birkdale.

Tommy Fleetwood has the looks of a rock star and the popularity of one in this seaside town in northwest England, especially this week.

Golf's oldest major is back in Southport for the first time since 2008 and, in Fleetwood, one of the sport's rising stars, the locals have one of their own to cheer for.

"I'll have the most support I've ever had in my life, from people I've grown up with, friends, family, you name it," Fleetwood said on Monday. "It's going to be a different experience, for sure."

Growing up, Fleetwood lived in a house just round the corner from Royal Birkdale. The place always held a mystical quality to a golf-loving kid who dreamed of winning the Open Championship from the age of 5.

He'd play at the local municipals - Southport, Formby Hall, and Southport & Ainsdale, where he'd sweep the paths - and would get on Birkdale only when accompanying his father, Peter, on evening dog walks.

"I might have bunked on the odd time and hit the odd shot," Fleetwood recalled. "But that was about as far as it goes."

The first British Open he went to watch was at Royal Birkdale in 1998. He remembers defending champion Justin Leonard being on the front cover of the program, being in awe of a 22-year-old Tiger Woods walking past him, and faking golfers' signatures in his autograph book because he failed to get any himself.

Nineteen years on, it's his signature in demand.

Fleetwood is at his highest-ever world ranking of No. 14, he's currently the No. 1 player on the European Tour after winning in Abu Dhabi and France this year, and played in the final group on the Sunday of a U.S. Open last month.

To a former coach and mentor, Fleetwood is not just a sentimental pick this week but a logical one.

"He's the player in form, he's one of the best players in the world, and he's playing a course he knows," Jim Payne told The Associated Press. "Some people talk about pressure he'll be under but I don't see that. I only think he can do well. It's set up for him, really."

Payne recalls Fleetwood being 10 or 11 when he met him for the first time, and young Tommy playing "like someone who was three years older."

"This might not sound right, but he was bothered," Payne said, pausing to find the correct words. "If it didn't work out, he wanted to do something about it. Some people just accept if it wasn't good or it wasn't a win, but he was always striving to get better."

Fleetwood was also aged 11 - with a handicap of 11 and already hitting the ball 230 yards - when he was voted as junior sports personality of the year�at a ceremony in nearby Sefton. Peter Fleetwood said at the time that the costs of his son's early golfing career "will all come back the day Tommy wins the Open."

How fitting if he achieved that at Birkdale and became the first Englishman to win an Open in England since Tony Jacklin in 1969 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

"Recent results have clearly put me in the eye and made people talk about me as a chance," Fleetwood said. "It's nice to be spoken of in that light, to be honest. I find it very flattering and, I mean, it doesn't affect me in any way, apart from it's very nice and makes me smile, really."

Fleetwood is often seen smiling these days. He says his home life is "as good as it's ever been." He is engaged to his manager, Clare, and they have a baby due in October. And he is over an alarming dip in form triggered when he tried to change his swing in 2015 to become a "world-class golfer."

He returned to another of his old coaches, Alan Thompson, re-employed his old caddie, Ian Finnis, and set about climbing the rankings from a recent low of No. 188 in September 2016.

Now he is that world-class golfer, and ready to add the claret jug to his growing haul of trophies.

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Updated July 17, 2017

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