SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Imagine playing the best round of your life -- arguably one of the greatest rounds in the history of golf -- and then, as a reward, you have to sit and wait three hours before you know if it even matters.
What would you do? How would you pass the time? Watch a movie? Play cards? Take a nap? Obsessively hit balls until someone questions your mental health?
That was Tommy Fleetwood's fate, and dilemma, on Sunday.
Fleetwood teed off around noon local time, three hours ahead of the U.S. Open leaders and six shots behind in 23rd place. A win, without everyone above him on the leaderboard staging a historic collapse, seemed improbable. Only Arnold Palmer, who was seven strokes down after 54 holes at Cherry Hills in 1960, had mounted that kind of rally to win a U.S. Open. Only Johnny Miller, at Oakmont in 1973, had shot a 63 in the final round of the major.
Fleetwood, a charming, hirsute, 27-year-old Englishman, is widely admired as one of the best ball-strikers in the game, but he's not Palmer or Miller. He has won four times on the European Tour but has never won on the PGA Tour. In 12 career majors, he had made the cut only six times. His best finish in a major, a fourth-place showing at last year's U.S. Open at Erin Hills, came when he started the final round one shot off the lead, then got dusted by his playing partner, Brooks Koepka, who beat him by five shots to win the trophy.
Something was different this year, however, and you could sense it magically unfolding as the sun beat down on Shinnecock Hills. The course, borderline unplayable on Saturday, was suddenly gettable again on Sunday. Fleetwood made a birdie early. Then another. Then another. Every iron he hit from the fairway looked like he was hitting off a tee. He birdied four straight holes on the back nine, and unexpectedly, he was within a shot of the lead. When he drove the ball in the fairway on 18, Fleetwood says he wasn't thinking about winning, even though he was within two shots of the lead; he instead was thinking about shooting 62. One more birdie, and it would be Fleetwood, not Miller, who holds the lowest round in U.S. Open history.
Fleetwood's caddie, Ian Finnis, said that when Fleetwood flushed a 6-iron from 198 toward the green, a towering right-to-left draw that seemed to linger for an extra second in the bright blue sky, it was quite possibly the best shot he had ever seen in his life. It landed six feet below the pin. Finnis wasn't sure if his player realized how good it was, considering the gravity of the moment and everything that was at stake. But as they walked up toward the green with the gallery chanting his name, Fleetwood looked at his caddie as if to say: Of course I know, mate. I'm the one who hit it.
"It was set up for me, that shot," Fleetwood said. "You know, I'd back myself to pull it off. It was a very good shot under the circumstances, but if you're strong enough mentally or if you let yourself go, that was a shot I fancied to pull off."
If there was one moment throughout the day when Fleetwood blinked, it was on the final birdie putt. He tried to brush the ball in the hole, but as it trundled toward the cup, it drifted right and missed. Fleetwood "settled" for a 7-under 63, one of the best rounds in the event's history.
"Obviously, that's the putt that will play on in your mind because that was the last shot you'll hit," Fleetwood said. "That was your chance."
The dilemma afterward: Now what? It was only 4 p.m. The last two groups were playing the fourth hole. At 2 over, had Fleetwood done enough to get into the U.S. Open's brand new two-hole playoff? Could he possibly win the tournament outright if things got dicey on the back nine? There were several scenarios in play.
Fleetwood did a few interviews, strolled back to the players' lounge behind the chipping green and started pacing around and fidgeting like he suddenly didn't know what to do with his hands. He watched the rest of the tournament on television. He untied his shoes. He posed for a picture with the teenager who'd carried his walking scoreboard during the day. But after a few minutes, it became clear that the next several hours were going to be agony. He began chewing his fingernails as he watched Koepka nuke drives down the fairway.
It wasn't until his wife, Clare Craig, who is also Fleetwood's manager, steered him toward food that he finally seemed to figure out what to do with himself. He ducked into the player dining area and fixed himself a sandwich, turkey with cheese. "That's all he really eats at these things," Craig said. Fleetwood sat and nibbled mindlessly, staring up at the television, having no idea what to expect. There were still two hours to go.
Finnis, a 6-foot-7 bear of a man with massive tattoos on his right arm, also couldn't sit still. He ducked back into the players' lounge, leaving the couple, and starting fiddling with his phone. "Just want to give him some space," said Finnis, who looks more like a rugby star than a caddie. "It's going to get quite interesting out there, isn't it?"
Zach Johnson, who finished his round almost an hour after Fleetwood, was showered and ready to leave the course, but he stopped and extended his hand to Finnis as he was leaving the locker room. "I have no words," Johnson said. "That was phenomenal. I'm not surprised, but it was still phenomenal. I hope it gets it done for you all."
At 5:30 p.m., Fox Sports replayed the highlights of Fleetwood's round, and Finnis got off his stool and stood in front of the television, unable to resist reliving them as if he didn't know the outcome. He flinched when he watched Fleetwood's putt drift right of the hole. "I thought for sure he was just going to ram it in there," Finnis said, pacing back and forth. "It's going to be really close. Brooks just keeps getting up and down from everywhere."
As Koepka and Johnson made the turn and began the back nine, Clare came back into the players' lounge. On her right hip, she was bouncing her and Fleetwood's blond, blue-eyed, 9-month-old son, Frankie. It was 5:45 p.m. and time for Tommy to think about getting stretched so he could hit balls on the driving range. Finnis dashed off to grab his player's clubs. Fleetwood entered and immediately spotted his son across the room. He started making faces at him, trying to get him to laugh. He scooped Frankie into his arms, and when his son dropped his pacifier on the ground, Fleetwood popped it into his own mouth, trying to tease his little boy. "I was playing with Frankie a bit, and the time went by pretty quick," he said.
When Finnis arrived with his clubs, Fleetwood handed Frankie back to his wife and pulled a Callaway sand wedge from his bag. He began taking slow, gentle swings on the carpet as he watched Koepka dig a shot out of the rough. It was coming up on 6 p.m. He rested the club against a wooden stool and scooped up his son again.
"I always thought I was going to be one short, but Brooks kept giving that little bit of hope, only to then hole a putt just to stab you in the stomach," Fleetwood said.
At 5:58 p.m., he decided he would head to the range. Koepka had just hit it close on the 16th hole. Fleetwood didn't want to watch the putt. He handed over his son and kissed his wife goodbye, not sure if he would see them again in a few minutes, assuming he finished second, or in an hour, after a potential playoff. He headed out the door.
"Tommy, is this yours?" one of his friends called out as he walked into the sunlight. Fleetwood looked back. His friend was holding up the sand wedge he had been mindlessly chipping with on the carpet. He'd completely forgotten about it. Both men started laughing.
"You sure saved me on that one, haven't you?" Fleetwood said.
He was walking to the range just as Koepka's birdie putt on 16 trickled into the cup, giving the American a two-shot lead. When Fleetwood got to the range, a USGA volunteer scrambled to put his name plate up behind where he was hitting. "Make sure and let everyone know [it's me]," Fleetwood chuckled. It was only he and Finnis. He dropped a ball on the ground and nipped it perfectly with his wedge. He dropped another and did it again. He switched to short irons. (You could get drunk on the sound of Fleetwood hitting the ball flush as it reverberates through the warm summer air.)
One of his friends waved over to Clare. "Brooks has hit it left of 18!" he said. "He's got quite the tricky up and down." She nodded, but her husband was oblivious. He had already moved to the chipping green, where Kiradech Aphibarnrat was clapping and jogging toward him, eager to give him a hug. "Tommy!" Aphibarnrat shouted. "You are the man!"
And then, just like that, the wait was over. Koepka, half a mile away, made his bogey putt on 18. "Baby, Ian ..." Clare called out to Fleetwood and his caddie, and when they looked over at her from across the green, they knew. A USGA media liaison steered Fleetwood toward the interview podium.
"Hopefully I will get there," Fleetwood told reporters. "Hopefully I'll win one or more of these."
When he was finished answering questions, an executive from the USGA presented him with the medal awarded to the second-place finisher at the U.S. Open. "Well, there you go," Fleetwood said. "My first medal. Thank you very much."