Two years ago today, the whole of Europe awoke woke a thunderous headache.
Such complaints are, some might say, a justifiable trade-off for the right to celebrate another Ryder Cup for golfers from this side of the Atlantic.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Thomas Bjorn’s team took down Jim Furyk’s Americans in thumping fashion, triumphing 17½-10½ at Le Golf National near Paris to regain the trophy.
It was a ninth European win in the last 12 editions of the contest.
One of the standout performers in France that week was rookie Tommy Fleetwood. Alongside his good friend Francesco Molinari, he won four out of five points, creating a catchy portmanteau, a groin-defying celebration and one of the best golf videos ever to bless the internet in the process.
In this candid interview, the 29-year-old reflects on a Ryder Cup debut to remember.
You made your Ryder Cup debut two years ago at Le Golf National. Would it be fair to describe that as the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition?
Absolutely, yeah. I mean, if I’m being completely honest, I can’t say it was one of my biggest ambitions as a kid. I don’t remember ever practicing to hole the winning putt in a Ryder Cup. It was always “this is for The Open” or “this is for the Masters”. But as you get a bit older and a career playing golf starts to become a possibility, you start to want everything that goes with it and, without a doubt, playing in the Ryder Cup is part of that.
What’s your first memory of the match?
I have kind of hazy memories of watching 1997 at Valderamma with Seve as the captain. I remember [Justin] Leonard holing putts from everywhere at Brookline in ’99 but that’s obviously not a great memory to have. The re-scheduled match at The Belfry in 2002 also stands out. I remember it had been postponed because of the September 11 attacks, so there was a big build-up to it and I recall coming home from school on the Friday afternoon and my dad raving to me about how well [Lee] Westwood had been playing. He’d been in a bit of a slump for a while going into that match – I don’t think he’d won in a few years and was well outside the world’s top-100 – but he was a big favourite in our house so we were chuffed to see him doing well. It’s one of those events I always enjoyed watching as a kid.
Did you ever go?
No, never. I didn’t really go to that many golf tournaments as a kid, to tell the truth. Funnily enough, the one I did go to before I qualified to play in it for the first time was The Masters. I went in 2014 just as a spectator. I’d been pro for a few years by then and I had won my first European Tour title at Gleneagles the previous August, so I had a feeling that my career was going in such a way where I’d be playing in The Masters before too long so I decided to go there just to try and get a sense of what it’s like and to be a little bit overwhelmed by it, I guess. The thinking was that when I got there as a player, I’d have got all of that out of my system. But, as for the Ryder Cup, I made a promise to myself that the first time I’d go to one would be as a player.
At what point did you start to get an inkling that 2018 could be your year?
Well, for the couple of matches before, I’d sort of been on the fringes of making the team then, in 2017, I had a great year, winning in Abu Dhabi and in France at Le Golf National. On top of that, I was fourth in the US Open, finished runner-up in the WGC-Mexico and finished up winning the Race To Dubai that year. So, it was probably a good year or so out that I thought to myself, ‘Right, I should be making this team’.
What was it like when you knew you were 100% in?
It’s a funny one, really. It reminded me a bit of trying to get in the England squads when I was an amateur. Every week, you wondered what your results or the results of the guy next to on the standings would do to your prospects. My focus was always on trying to make the team without needing a pick. It’s kind of rare now to see rookies get a pick, so I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Fortunately, because of the way I’d been playing when qualification started, I was always kind of in. It was when I finished runner-up in the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock that it was guaranteed. That was kind of strange because it was this personal huge achievement but it was overshadowed by almost winning my first major and shooting a 63 in the US Open. It was almost “Oh yeah, and…” It was really more the weeks building up to the picks being made when it became most real. I’d quite often sit with Poults, Rosey, Rory or Casey in the players’ lounge during the FedEx Cup Playoffs at that time and we’d quickly start talking about it. That’s when it was like, “Okay, this is happening.”
Obviously, the Ryder Cup is different from almost everything else you guys play in, both in terms of its format and the scale of it. When you did start to prepare mentally for that?
Right at the start of 2018. Having had such a great 2017, I made it a goal for 2018 to make the team. When I make a goal, I try to make achieving into almost a kind of a ‘moment’ that I can visualise. I find that really helps me to focus on realising it. In the case of the Ryder Cup, that ‘moment’ was standing on the first tee and hearing the crowd. In some ways, it was easy to picture because I’d played Le Golf National and hit that first tee shot so many times. Fair enough, the circumstances were different but I could visualise the shot and the flight of the ball in the air so that became part of that ‘moment’. That’s as far as I let it go. I never let myself get past the first tee shot. I had no example to base the rest of the experience on so I decided I just take everything else as it came. But yeah, it was a pretty beautiful goal to be aware of.
What were your conversations like with Thomas Bjorn?
He was brilliant. All the way through the process, from the minute he was appointed in 2017 right through to the end, he was first-class. For me, in particular, the transition from being a potential player to actually being one wasn’t a big deal at all because he was so consistent in his approach and in the way he treated every single one of us. We had regular conversations where he told us all how it was going to be, who he thought made good partners but, equally, he wanted to know who we wanted to play with. He encouraged a very open and honest dialogue. I played under him in the EurAsia Cup at the start of 2018, so I got to see him as a captain up close and personal before the Ryder Cup and, honestly, I knew right then that he’d be great for us. The thing about Thomas is that he has a way of making you want to do well for him. He has a real inspirational quality. A lot of people maybe misunderstand him and think he looks quite serious or severe but, trust me, he has a great human and compassionate side. I can’t say enough good things about him.
What about basic things like getting fitted for clothes? When did that all happen?
That all happens quite a long way in advance. Maybe as much as a year before. For this year’s match, the fittings took place at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai last November. When you arrive for the Ryder Cup at the start of the week, all of your clothes are already there waiting for you and, if you need anything adjusted, there’s a tailor who can take care of that.
When did you arrive in Paris?
I flew in on the Monday morning along with Jon [Rahm], Paul [Casey] and Fran [Molinari] on a charter flight from Atlanta where we’d been playing in the Tour Championship. We flew straight to Paris and went straight to the hotel. I remember being taken aback at just how many people were there to help. You honestly barely have to think. All your clothes are in your wardrobe, arranged into your various scriptings for each day and you’re given an itinerary of what’s happening, when and where. Everything is made so easy for you.
When did you first head out on the course?
We played 18 on Tuesday and that was unlike any other Tuesday round I’ve ever played. There must have been 70- or 80,000 people there and, of course, you’re signing everything that gets put in front of you from green to tee and so on. It took me a bit by surprise, if I’m being totally honest. I knew it would be busy but I didn’t appreciate how busy. On top of that, I was a bit jetlagged, it was cold, we’d been up early for pictures and it was windy. I couldn’t hit a shot to save myself that day. I was hopeless. Completely awful. I worked out later on that, through the first 11 holes, I was at 15-over. But something really important happened as I was walking off ten. Poults came over to me, put his arm around me and said, “Just get through today. It gets a whole lot easier.” I didn’t realise anybody had noticed I was struggling. I was having a total shocker but Poults made me realise that we were all in the same boat and all looking out for one another. That put me completely at ease.
I imagine Poulter being brilliant in the team room. What was it like in there?
As you’d expect, there were a lot of different personalities but it was incredible how well we all gelled. Everyone just seemed like a perfect match for one another. Of course, you had “leaders”, if you like, but they each brought something different in their approach. You had Henrik, who’s quite a quiet guy but he has this amazing confidence and a really dry humour that you just know he’s going to go out there and do his job, no fuss, no worries. Then you had Poults and Sergio, who are more outward and vocal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they’re running around the room, getting in people’s faces and shouting “f**king come on!”. They just brought this amazing energy to the room. The biggest thing we had, though, was a complete lack of egos. That’s one thing I think Europe does amazingly well. It doesn’t matter it you’re Tommy Fleetwood, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy or whoever. Everybody’s equal. It’s an unspoken rule but everyone sticks to it.
Were family allowed to stay with you that week?
Yeah, so [wife] Clare and [son] Frankie stayed with me and my step-kids came at the weekend. Frankie had to be with us as it was his first birthday on the Friday but Thomas was brilliant about that and made it work for us. He just trusted everyone to do what was best for each of us. The team room was open all hours, so if you couldn’t sleep or whatever, you could go in there whenever you wanted, assuming there wasn’t anywhere else you had to be. It became a nice little sanctuary in some ways. Your life’s not really your own for a week so it was good to have a place to chill out and escape.
That brings us to Friday morning. You and Francesco were out last in the morning’s fourballs session and the legend of ‘MOLIWOOD’ was born. When did that partnership become a possibility?
Well, Fran and me are great friends and our families are really close, so we’d all been on holiday together in The Bahamas before the FedEx Playoffs started. We talked a lot about the Ryder Cup sitting by the pool or at dinner and so on, and we agreed that we’d like to partner each other. We communicated that back to Thomas but, equally, we were quite prepared to go with whatever he thought was best. I mean, yeah, Fran and I are friends but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to be a good fit for each other in a team golf scenario. Plus, one of us could get ill or just play poorly, so it’s not like there weren’t other options on the table. At one stage, it looked like I might play with Henrik [Stenson] or Casey, which, again, I’d have been more than happy with. Anyway, the week went on and, by the time Thursday morning came around, we still didn’t know if Thomas would put us together. You only find out a couple of hours before the opening ceremony. But yeah, he put his trust in us and, fortunately, it paid off.
The two of you had formidable opposition in your opening match: Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed. How did you prepare in those final few hours before your tee time?
It actually kind of started on the Thursday morning. I’d asked Thomas if it would be alright if I went up to the very top of the grandstand behind the first tee with my sports psychologist before the public gates opened just so I could try to visualise what it was going to be like on the Friday morning. He was fine with that so that’s what we did and it was really useful – but nothing can prepare you for how you’re going to feel as your time approaches. Walking to the first tee, it’s probably as nervous as you’ll ever feel. As you’re going through your warm-up, you can hear every roar from the crowd. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. We were the last of the four matches to go out and, when it came our time, that’s when the visualisation of my ‘moment’ that I had formed right at the start of the year really came into its own. I knew it was a 5-wood off the tee, which, if I could have picked any club to hit for my first shot in the Ryder Cup, it would have been that one. I was also well aware that it was Frankie’s first birthday and I didn’t want anything to spoil it, so I had this extra determination to win for him. When my name was announced, I remember feeling that I was living the realisation of a goal and, weirdly, as nervous as I felt, I also felt comfortable. I’ve heard some other players say that the ball became a total blur beneath them as they stood over their first shot, or that they felt like they would miss it completely. I didn’t have that. I was nervous but I was ready.
You guys were two-down through ten. Talk us through what happened next.
Yeah, they won the ninth and tenth to get into the lead. As we were walking to 11, Fran turned to me and said, “Come on, we’ve got this.” He then holed a putt on 11 to get it back to one and again on 12. Suddenly, we’re all-square again with six holes to play. I’d been playing okay up until that point. I didn’t feel like I had that much rhythm. Anyway, as we were walking down 15, still all-square, word got back to us that the other three matches had finished and the US had won them all. We couldn’t have the first session win 0-4. You can’t give your opponents that kind of advantage. Anyway, we got up to the green and I had a 25-footer. All I was thinking was, “Don’t stick this three feet past.” Instead, it hit the hole and we were suddenly one-up. All of a sudden, there was a huge change in the mood around the place. You could almost feel the momentum shifting to us. We got up to the green on the 16th, a par-3, and Fran said to me, “Just so you know, I’m going to hole my putt.” I was like, “Oh, that’s good!” As it turned out, I holed mine and from having been two-down through ten, we were suddenly two-up with two to play. Fran then finished off the job with another birdie on 17 and, just like that, we’d won 3&1. Honestly, it was -- it was just one of the coolest things ever.
Then you went on to whitewash the US in the afternoon foursomes.
Yeah, we just ran riot. I guess we kind of just rode the wave. The place was bouncing. It had gone from being almost eerily quiet midway through the morning to these massive roars all ringing around the place. We had a quick team meeting after that and the atmosphere in the room was unbelievable but Thomas was quick to pull us in. We were only leading
by two points. There were 20 more to be played for. So, we were in a good place and feeling good but the job
was nowhere near over. After he’d said his bit, Thomas pulled Clare and me aside and told us to go and have some time alone with Frankie for his birthday. I’ll never forget that. They even got him a birthday cake. That
bit of time we had, just the three of
us, is one of my favourite memories ever.
By close of play on Saturday, you had a 10-6 lead to take into the Sunday singles. What was the message from Thomas that night?
Very simple: focus on winning the session. Medinah and Brookline have both shown that 10-6 on Saturday night isn’t enough. So, the message was clear: keep the pressure on and try to win your point. There was a very different atmosphere on Sunday. You went from having a maximum of four matches on the course to having 12, so the crowd was a lot more spread out. It was a case of just knuckling down and trying to win. Unfortunately, I came up against an inspired Tony Finau who holed absolutely everything. I missed some putts of my own but he was just on another level that day. That made in 10.5-9.5 and, suddenly, for a good half-hour, it got really tight. The worst part was not being able to do anything. My match was over. It was totally out of my control. But I had trust in the guys behind me and they dug it out.
Appropriately, it was Frankie who put up the winning point, beating Phil Mickelson. Describe that moment of knowing that you had won the Ryder Cup.
It was surreal. Suddenly, after all this time planning and preparing, we had done it. We’d got what we’d come for. It’s hard to describe. It was just amazing.
Your celebration went viral, too.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was pretty funny. Luckily, I’m pretty supple so it’s not quite as tough as it looks. We’ll see how long I can keep doing it. Even to this day, almost 18 months later, I still get people sending me photos of them squatting. I remember we were all jumping about celebrating in front of all the supporters when Casey and his missus said to me, “Go on, give them ‘The Squat’.” So, I did and, yeah, it went down well!
What was the party like that night?
It was just a beautiful, brilliant atmosphere. Everyone was on such a giddy high. It was brilliant. Obviously, there were quite a few drinks taken that night but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? You know when you hear people say, ‘That was one of the best nights I’ve ever had’ and you wonder what your own one was? Well, that was it. That was easily one of the best nights of my life.
And, as we all saw, you woke up the following morning in bed with the Ryder Cup and Mr Molinari…
[Laughs] Yeah, that was brilliant. It was all Gibbo’s idea. [Michael Gibbons, the European Tour’s Content Director]. He’s got a great mind for stuff like that. He told us about it shortly after we’d won and we thought it sounded like a bit of a laugh. We were at the team party that night when Fran reminded him about it. I was in the middle of the dancefloor when the pair of them came up and we went off to Gibbo’s room to film it. It required a few takes because we couldn’t stop laughing every time we tried to do it but it was well worth it. People seemed to really enjoy it so that’s the most important thing.
Hopefully you’ll have a chance to repeat it at the next Ryder Cup.
[Laughs] That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Now that you’ve played in it, what three words would you use to describe the Ryder Cup?
Ooooh, that’s a tough one. [Long pause]. You know what, I’d have to go for this: “unique, fierce arena”.
• This interview first appeared in issue 179 of bunkered. For more great content just like this, and to make sure you never miss an edition, subscribe to Scotland's only golf mag here. International subscriptions also available.