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Tommy Fleetwood claws back USPGA Championship ground in attempt to end 100-year wait for English winner

Tommy Fleetwood has been here before on Long Island, squinting his eyes to see Brooks Koepka striding away in a major and wondering how he can possibly catch him.

England is relying on him working it out. This is the 100th anniversary of the nation’s last USPGA winner, Jim Barnes, and it must be presumed that the Cornishman, with his “Long Jim” nickname, would have relished this binocular-strainer of a layout. 

Indeed, Barnes might well have been the Koepka of his day, grinding his rivals into the turf, with his power and relentless mentality. Allow him to dominate at your peril.

Fleetwood will not bow down in the pursuit however. He got to within one of the mighty American at the US Open at Shinnecock Hills 11 months ago, and now, just 50 miles up the expressway, the challenge is to launch a successful chase. And at the very least, his three-under 67 has presented the 28-year-old with a platform to attack the deficit with which he is presented, however ominous it is at four shots.

“Look it’s only the first round, but yeah, Brooks does a very good job at major,” Fleetwood said. “I sure wouldn’t be surprised if he was still there on Sunday. He’s a lot bigger than me and he hits it a bit further. He’s got a bigger bone balance.”

There are definite similarities, despite one standing at 6ft 2in and the other at 5ft 10. As well as their comfort on Long Island there is their seemed ability to turn on they best at the majors. Granted, Fleetwood is not even close on this score to Koepka’s haul of two US Opens and last year’s Wanamaker Trophy, but the enjoyment he garners in the heat is comparable.

Brooks Koepka reacts after sinking a putt on the 14th green during the first round of the PGA Championship golf tournament

Brooks Koepka finished round one seven under par Credit: AP

“Someone just asked me what it is about me and this part of the world,” Fleetwood said. “I don’t know, maybe I just fit in. In truth, I think these major set-ups suit me and my style of golf. It doesn’t always go right, but I enjoy getting in a dogfight with the toughest layouts in the world. As for me and Brooks, I’m short of those wins at the moment, although I do feel that if I can keep getting into contention it will be a matter of time. But definitely in terms of liking the challenge of majors and how I think some players go about majors I guess we could look at there being a similarity.”

As much as Fleetwood enjoyed playing the host at last week’s British Masters in his hometown of Southport, he arrived in New York on Sunday night in rather more optimistic mood. Fleetwood did not in any way disgrace himself at Hillside, finishing in a tie for eighth, but he felt lousy, having picked up a virus from his young son, Frankie. “I’ve recovered and it was good getting here and preparing for a course I absolutely love,” Fleetwood said. “I get a buzz out of preparing for the major courses like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. It’s just a passion for it and adrenaline. That keeps you going easily.”

It was just before 7.30am when Fleetwood stepped on to the 10th tee to start his first round in the company of Ireland’s Shane Lowry (75) and the South African Erik van Rooyen (70) and in cold conditions he merely “survived” the first four holes in one-over having bogeyed the wretched 10th. 

From there, his quality ball-striking began to take effect, as he hit 13 out of 18 greens. The strongest aspects of his morning were his approach play and his putting and, after birdieing his final hole, the par-four ninth, courtesy of hitting his second from 190 yards to within five feet, he was understandably a happy man. “In practice it was like ‘this I the toughest course in the world’, so I have to be more than satisfied,” Fleetwood said. “Six birdies is a lot out there. It’s brutal but it felt quite accepting today. Long may that last.”

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