Fitzpatrick stands as he aims to defend Dubai title

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There is a strange ambience to the Under Armour store in which Matthew Fitzpatrick is holding court with journalists. While he is sequestered in one corner, shoppers are casually milling around at the other end wondering what the big fuss is about.

Even though it has been 12 months since Fitzpatrick won the DP World Tour Championship, and another couple since latching on as the youngest member of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, the softly-spoken Englishman evidently still finds it easy to blend in at Dubai Mall.

“I have had a few more people notice me – I have to admit my best one ever was literally the week after I won in Dubai and I went to see my girlfriend in Atlanta,” Fitzpatrick says.

“We went to their local takeaway place to pick up a pizza and we were sat down waiting for it.

“The guy who worked behind the bar came up to me and said, ‘has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Matt Fitzpatrick?’ I said, ‘no, it’s me’ and he was amazed as he’d seen me on TV.

“That was strange, though I didn’t get a free pizza. I should have asked for it …

“I’ve tended just to go with (the recognition), you get it at tournaments all the time.

“But when I’m with my mum, dad and girlfriend and friends it’s a little bit different, as they think ‘wow – these guys know him’. But you just try to be a normal person.”

Masters winner Sergio Garcia and the blisteringly in-form Justin Rose are the names who are likely to be followed around by a long string of admirers at Earth course this week, but Fitzpatrick’s relative anonymity is unlikely to last past next year.

At just 22 years of age, he became the youngest Englishman since Nick Faldo to win three European Tour events last season and though he was powerless to prevent Europe from slipping to defeat at Hazeltine, he further boosted his reputation by clinching the season-ending DP World Tour Championship – etching his name on an honours board alongside Major winners Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy.

He has returned to the country fresh from another fine European Tour season that has added a further €1.8m to his coffers, while a Ryder Cup on European soil lingers tantalisingly on the horizon just as soon as he is finished attempting to defend his crown at Jumeirah Golf Estates.

This year, however, certainly did not begin as well as 2016 ended – a first real crack at conquering America fell by the wayside early in the season, while the 23-year-old had to persevere through a summer slump.

“It’s been a funny one really, I had a half- decent start to the year but didn’t play as well I would have liked and had a pretty poor summer so I was disappointed with that,” admits the world No31, who sits 12th on the Race to Dubai.

“But the last eight or nine weeks have been really good – I met up with my team just before the Czech Masters (in September) to figure out what I needed to do better and since then it’s been good.

“It was more frustrating because I felt like I was working really hard and everything just wasn’t paying off.

“I was doing a lot with my team just trying to be more consistent and play better and I just didn’t have a good summer. It got me down a little bit, I was frustrated, but we managed to turn it around.

“Everything else was OK but, I was just really struggling with my driving. I was losing half a shot a round but in comparison now I’m gaining three a round, so it’s made a big difference to my score.”

Matthew Fitzpatrick is looking to defend his title in Dubai.

Matthew Fitzpatrick is looking to defend his title in Dubai.

START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON

Fitzpatrick has maximised his good run of form by playing consecutive tournaments in China, Turkey and latterly South Africa for the Nedbank Golf Challenge, before turning up in Dubai a day later.

He’s even starting 2018 a little earlier than the rest of us in Hong Kong next week as he kick-starts a long and winding road to Le Golf National, the French venue for the Ryder Cup in September.

“No fatigue’s setting in yet, I haven’t fallen asleep on the golf course, but it’s just a long stretch – and it always is at the end of the year,” he says. “Hong Kong is the first event of the 2018 season. I’m looking forward to that because as a city, and the golf course, it’ll be a fun week.

“With it being a Ryder Cup year too, it’s one of those where you want to play these big events in which you can earn a lot of points. If you have a couple of good finishes you can almost wrap it up.

“I’d love to be able to get my PGA Tour card for the year after – the cards are done already for next year – but 2019 would be pretty cool.

“It’s definitely something in my mind that I’d want to achieve eventually and hopefully next year will be the first time. But we’ll see – my main goal is to make the Ryder Cup team.

“I like weeks off but at the same time, going back to Sheffield in November isn’t ideal to practice.”

But his hometown is never too far from his thoughts, as his beloved Sheffield United aim to cash in on a fantastic start in the second tier of English football and return to the Premier League next season.

“I keep an eye on them as much as possible and when I’m home I try and get down to Bramall Lane,” he adds. “It’s been a great year so far, I’ve met (manager) Chris Wilder a few times and he’s been doing a great job with the team. I’ve met a few of the lads as well and they seem to be a proper team this year. It’s exciting for the club.

“I haven’t played a round with any of them yet but it’s something on the cards.”

Steel City dwellers – those who don’t support Sheffield Wednesday – may be able to crow about a sporting double next year.

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