Tommy Fleetwood’s historic Sunday at the U.S. Open comes up just short

SOUTHAMPTON, NY - JUNE 17: Tommy Fleetwood of England looks on from the 16th hole during the final round of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 17, 2018 in Southampton, New York. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
SOUTHAMPTON, NY - JUNE 17: Tommy Fleetwood of England looks on from the 16th hole during the final round of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 17, 2018 in Southampton, New York. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

Tommy Fleetwood fired a 7-under 63, tying a U.S. Open scoring record on Sunday at Shinnecock Hills. Fleetwood finished solo second behind back-to-back winner Brooks Koepka.

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Tommy Fleetwood stood knee-high in the tall grass and felt something all golfers truly fear: indecision. The Englishman took a couple of practice swings, thwacking at the furry Shinnecock Hills fescue. Before he had a chance to hit it, his caddie called him off and they quickly decided to switch clubs.

Fleetwood pulled one from a heinous lie to give himself a look at birdie. No one could have predicted what would happen next.

When the 27-year-old reached the 9th green about a half hour before, he’d already passed the Patrick Reed-Kiradech Aphibarnrat pairing who were teeing off just 30 yards away on the 1st tee. Fleetwood put up four birdies on the front nine before making his lone bogey of the day at the 9th. After starting the day six shots back, Fleetwood managed to cut his deficit in half as he walked to the 10th.

Still, his galleries playing with Russell Henley were sparse. The stars were just teeing off, the major champions, the guys with real shots to win the championship.

Then the putt on 12 dripped in. An approach to about two feet on the 13th gave Fleetwood another birdie. His shot into the long par-4 14th came up short of the green, but the 12th ranked player in the world poured in. Walking to the 15th tee, Fleetwood flashed a big smile to the raucous gallery.

Not only was he playing the round of his life, the shine soaking in like the golden summer sun, but he appeared able to appreciate the burgeoning crowds around him. Chasing a U.S. Open championship and scoring record, Fleetwood still tipped his cap at every green, gave every high five to kids along the ropes, and generally played like a guy with nothing to lose, even if he had everything to gain.

A snaking putt for birdie gave Fleetwood four in a row and Shinnecock Hills was officially rocking, as the U.S. Open scoring record quaked at the flowing locks of Fleetwood.

Unable to make birdie at the par-5 16th felt like the end, but after a par on 17, Fleetwood hit a magnificent, tracing draw right at the 18th pin. He had 10 feet for 62 and a tie of the lead. His missed it on the low side and had to settle for 63, tying the U.S. Open record. In fact, it was 45 years to the day that Johnny Miller shot 63 on Sunday at Oakmont to win the Open, widely considered the greatest round in not just championship history, but possibly any major.

When the crowd stood to applaud the diminutive Fleetwood, there’s no doubt the leaders could hear the roars. They couldn’t avoid noticing his vertiginous run up the leaderboard and by the time he signed his card, he sat just one off the lead of Brooks Koepka.

In a tournament where big-time bombers abounded on the leaderboard, the slight Fleetwood stands out. Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau look like football players. Dustin Johnson is a tall, wiry player and one of the best athletes on Tour. Fleetwood is listed officially at 5’11” (that has to be in his spikes) and 168 pounds. But he peppered these treacherous Shinny greens thanks to ideal positioning off the tee, where he consistently found the fairway. He didn’t have to smoke drivers 330 to bring the venerable Shinnecock Hills to its proverbial knees.

If you just saw Fleetwood standing next to his caddy Ian Finnis, you’d never guess he was the rising PGA Tour star. But there was no doubt on Sunday as the long-haired Fleetwood dazzled fans with one of the great rounds in the history of the championship in its 118th playing.

Koepka shot out to the early lead, playing the rabbit in the greyhound race. The 2016 U.S. Open winner at Erin Hills birdied three of the first five holes to set the early pace. Masters winner Patrick Reed made a run of his own, making fives birdies in his first seven holes before a rough stretch from 9-12 where he put three squares on the card to fall three off the pace.

All Fleetwood had to do was watch the field try to best his two-over score, spending the entire late afternoon as the clubhouse leader.

But on a day when Fleetwood was second-to-none, he ended up second-to-one on the leaderboard. Brooks Koepka made some unbelievable up-and-downs, saving par on multiple occasions from deep rough. In true U.S. Open fashion, perhaps his biggest putt came on the par-3 11th when he drilled a long putt for bogey after flying the green. Limiting the damage provided him with the kind of cushion one needs at a course as difficult as Shinnecock.

Next: Brooks Koepka wins 2018 U.S. Open: Full video highlights

A kick-in birdie on 16 pushed him two clear of Fleetwood in solo second. By then, all Fleetwood could do was watch. He’d done everything he could to put himself in position to win the U.S. Open, but just like last year when Fleetwood finished T4, he couldn’t catch Koepka. No one could.

There was very nearly drama at the 18th for Koepka after he hooked his approach off the grandstand, but a deft pitch gave way to two putts for the championship. The 28-year-old American became the first back-to-back U.S. Open winner since Curtis Strange, who just happened to be on the call for the Fox telecast.

Now it’s clear, Fleetwood didn’t lose the championship. He’d done everything he could. Brooks Koepka won it during a week when Shinnecock Hills beguiled most of the field.

He’ll never forget missing makeable birdie putts at 16 and 18 that would have set the U.S. Open scoring record, as well as the major championship record. After Koepka’s bogey on the last, it must be doubly excruciating for Fleetwood to know he could have had the record and a shot at a playoff. Though his missed putts will likely be seared into his memory, those lucky enough to be in the Southampton crowd on Father’s Day will never forget watching Fleetwood chase history.