TOMMY Fleetwood produced a breath-taking again 9 to retain his HSBC Abu Dhabi title, and earned a glowing tribute from an admiring Rory McIlroy.
Fleetwood started the week singing the praises of enjoying companions McIlroy and world No 1 Johnson – and went on to outscore each of them over 36 holes.
And after he scorched previous McIlroy and joint leaders Ross Fisher and Thomas Pieters with a sensational 65 in windy circumstances – rounded off with a six beneath par 30 on the closing 9 – it was Fleetwood’s flip to just accept the plaudits.
McIlroy commented: “What Tommy has achieved is simply unimaginable.
“He had an important yr in 2017, successful the Race to Dubai to complete as European No 1, and to maintain that going is so robust to perform.
“Because the defending champion, to place that spherical of golf collectively is de facto one thing. I imply, 65 in these circumstances is severely spectacular.
“And to shoot a six-under again 9 when he wanted to simply proves he is an important addition to the world of golf, an important addition to the European Tour and he can be an important addition to the Ryder Cup staff in September.
“It’s important to take note of the power of the sphere as nicely, with the world No 1 and a lot more top-ranked gamers right here.
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“The way Tommy is progressing, and the style he won in, bodes well for him and the rest of Europe.
“As for me, I’m obviously disappointed, but I didn’t really know what to expect after the injury.
“My health and my golf are in a much better place than they were in October, and I’m excited about Dubai this week, and the rest of the year.”
Fleetwood, 28, seemed overwhelmed by his victory. He admitted it felt even sweeter than his win 12 months ago, when he held off a charging Johnson by one stroke.
He said: “This one feels a lot more emotional, possibly because it’s a weird feeling when you come back to a place to defend a title – you feel like the trophy is yours, and you don’t want to give it back.
“Now I get to keep it for another year, which is great. And it was so important for me to start the season well, because everyone knows I had the year of my life in 2017.
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“The challenge is to build on that, and I’ve made the ideal start. It’s good to prove to yourself that you’re still moving forward.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever played better golf than that, but I do know that score was very, very good in those conditions.”
McIlroy – who is selliing his Florida mansion – had high hopes of crowning his return from a three month injury lay-off with a first victory in 16 months.
But he had to settle for yet another top three finish here. – he has been runner-up four times and third on three more occasions in his last eight visits.
Fleetwood and the rest also looked like they were playing for second as Fisher roared into a four shot lead with an eagle and two birdies in the first seven holes.
But a bogey on the par five tenth halted his run, and Fleetwood’s storming finish settled the issue.
He finished on 22 under par, two clear of Fisher, with McIlroy and playing partner Matthew Fitzpatrick sharing third another two shots back.
Fleetwood could break into the world’s top ten for the first time when the rankings are announced today. Not bad for a man who had slipped to 188th just over a year ago, and was in despair at the state of his game.
The Southport star’s birthday has fallen on one of the early rounds of this tournament for the last two years. He certainly knows how to celebrate.
Fisher was also generous in defeat.
He said: “Hats off to Tommy. I don’t feel like I’ve lost a tournament. Tommy’s gone out there and shot 65 and he’s won it, so all credit to him.”