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No more sneaking around Birkdale for much-fancied Fleetwood

Tommy Fleetwood finished fourth at the U.S. Open last month and then won at the Open de France, marking him as a possible contender at The Open this week. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

SOUTHPORT, England -- The secret was right near the fourth and fifth holes. That's where the locals could circumvent the authorities. No tee time, no checking in. They could walk onto venerable Royal Birkdale -- or more accurately, sneak onto the course -- and just start playing golf.

Tommy Fleetwood knows this, because he's done it. He's 26 now, and the world's 14th-ranked golfer, an upstart favorite for this week's 146th Open Championship. But two decades ago, when he was aspiring to all he's become, there were times he needed to be a bit more creative to play here.

"We were very clever about it," he explained. "Or my dad was, not me."

Indeed, it was Pete Fleetwood who would walk the family dog on the outskirts of Birkdale, then nudge his young son onto the famous links.

"Tommy was three feet high or so and I'd say, 'Come on, let's go through there and sneak past the fence,'" he recalled. "As soon as we'd see anyone coming, off through the fence and we were gone."

Just like that, they'd take the dog back down the path, walking the two-mile journey home.

Even back then, the elder Fleetwood knew his boy would find success in this game.

"When he was 6 years old and started playing proper, I knew he would be a golfer," he explained. "A couple of years after that, I knew even more, because you could see the determination. He was a very, very determined boy."

At the age of 8, Fleetwood competed in an under-13 regional tournament at Clitheroe Golf Club, about 30 miles away. His swing was smooth, but the tees were so far back that he could rarely reach the fairway. Pete remembers Tommy crying most of the way, but fighting back those tears to continue trying his hardest.

When it was over, the boy had stumbled to a total score of 132. Ask him about it today, though, and he argues that number.

"He still insists now it was 131," Pete said with a laugh.

That will be closer to a two-day total this week, when Fleetwood is expected to be a serious contender for the Claret Jug following a month that included four top-10 results in four starts, including a solo fourth-place finish at the U.S. Open and a victory at the Open de France.

It will be quite the story if the player who used to sneak onto the course can find himself in critical position on the leaderboard this week.

"It's a little bit surreal, actually," said his friend and longtime caddie Ian Finnis. "It's a crazy ride he's been on, because he's played so well."

"It's going to be an experience for me I'll never forget," Fleetwood offered. "It's very rare that you get a tournament this close to home. I know everybody wants to talk about that. It's a massive privilege to be playing at a tournament so close to home, and it being the British Open. It's going to be a great week for me, no matter what."

"If he makes the cut this week, that'll be a great week. He won't think that, but I think that."

Pete Fleetwood, Tommy's father

This is a week that has already included a first-tee ovation prior to his Monday practice round, the hometown kid clearly starring as the fan favorite.

That overzealous crowd included his family, who still live those two miles away, but won't be reliving memories by walking over to the course this week.

"Only if we were stupid," explained Pete. "We're not stupid, so no, we don't walk. If you want to show off, you can say you'd walk here, but it's 40 minutes [away]."

When asked what he and his father -- who caddied for him on the developmental Challenge Tour -- discuss when they talk golf, Tommy admitted those conversations revolve more around his old man's game than his own.

"He's more interested in his own golf half the time," Tommy said with a smile.

"I'm better than him," Pete deadpanned. "My driving is garbage, my irons are garbage and my short game is garbage. Apart from that, I'm great. I can do the 19th hole pretty well."

Fleetwood's father is a character of the highest order, but he isn't without his sensibilities. Asked what he thought of all the talk about his son being one of the favorites this week, Pete dismissed it with a wave of his hand. Other parents might talk up their children, forever believing they'll win every week. They might offer predictions of outsized proportions. Not Pete.

"If he makes the cut this week, that'll be a great week," he said. "He won't think that, but I think that."

There are large bushes by the fourth and fifth holes now, surrounded by taller fences than during Tommy Fleetwood's youth. If someone wants to play this course, they must know a member or pay a green fee or, yes, qualify for The Open Championship.

Fleetwood no longer needs to trespass. The guy who used to sneak onto Royal Birkdale has earned his spot here, through the traditional route.