Take him off the motorcycle and the surfboard or take the beer out of his hand and the girls off his back and Bruce Fleisher will go out and hit the golf ball a ton—250, 265, 280 yards, way out there, anywhere. He will hit it off gravel roads to save a par or out of gaping sand to make a birdie, or he will even hit it off the fairways and finesse it on the greens to win the U.S. Amateur Championship.
That is just what golf's new Golden Guy, 19-year-old Bruce Fleisher of Miami, did last week at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. He did it with his shirt napping out at the waist, his frayed wool tattersall pants low on the hips and the coeds gathered all around him. And he did it with his Robert Wagner face grinning at all the skirts, his Steve McQueen saunter eating up the ground, and his movie-star style just knocking everybody stone dead. Swagger and sway, Bruce Fleisher did, and damn those old fossils of The Establishment, anyway. Teen Angel is back; sex appeal has returned to amateur golf.
Fleisher shot 73-70-71-70—284, four over par, at beautiful Scioto last week, and only a brilliant 65 by Vinnie Giles on the final day prevented him from spread-eagling the field and sending America's best amateurs cowering to the clubhouse in embarrassment. Giles's 65, which brought him to within one stroke of Fleisher (and to a second straight second place finish in the Amateur) was ironically a clarion call for maturity. Vinnie, at 25, was the oldest of the top seven finishers. Among the mystery kids way up there were John Bohmann, 21, of Texas Lutheran, and Hubert Green, 21, of Florida State, who finished third and fourth, and two Texas collegians, Bob Barbarossa and Rik Massengale. But it was the 6'3" sandy-haired Fleisher, who came from the deepest pit of obscurity—the National Junior College Championship—to stardom at the Amateur.
Apart from his beautiful swing and controlled hand action which had purists in the crowd marveling at his every move, Bruce came on with a certain flash seldom seen around the USGA tents. "Broads, great broads are all over the place. Broads about drove me crazy," he said after one round. "I'm from Miami-Dade Junior College. I'm retarded," he said after another.
Bruce wore white tape on his left wrist ("for the fans") and those fringed-bottom pants to all the press meetings, where he would sing into the microphone a little and then talk about his attire. "They're Miami style. They're my style," he said with a laugh.
Bruce Fleisher laughed a lot last week, mostly right out there on the course while he was taking a share of the halfway lead, then holding the third-round lead alone and finally winning the whole ball game. He was not exactly underconfident about it, either. "Tough luck," said a friend after a double bogey on the first day. "Stick around, I'll be back," said Bruce Fleisher.
The fact that Fleisher and a few of his closest pursuers were, up until last week, nameless, faceless wonders who had come out of Everytown, USA to find themselves at the peak of amateur golf in this country was not as astounding as it seemed, nor at all difficult to explain.
Many USGA officials agree that it is becoming harder and harder for the most consistent of the "name" players in amateur golf even to qualify for the tournament, much less win it. There were a record 2,086 entries at the 40 qualifying sites three weeks ago, playing for 147 open spots at Scioto. Some locations had an abundance of slots to fill, and some fields were easier than others, but the national average of survivors balanced out to a hard, brutal figure: one out of 14 made it to Columbus.
Though two places were reserved for national champions of the past five years and one place for the British Open champion, only 32 of the 150 men who teed off on Wednesday had returned from the field that started play in the 1967 Amateur at Broadmoor in Colorado. The percentage of turnover at the Amateur has been moving steadily upward for several years, especially since the event was transformed into medal play in 1965, but this year's figure (79% new faces) is certainly a modern high.
However, some old faces were immediately recognizable. Familiar ones like Campbell, Tutwiler and Gray made it to Scioto, even if others such as Coe, Updegraff and Hyndmann did not.
Bill Hyndmann IV was there, it is true, succeeding where his more renowned father, Bill III, had failed. Considering the vast concentration of youth at the top of the leader boards all week, it was also noteworthy that only two members of the eight-man All-America college team (Jack Lewis Jr. of Wake Forest and Allen Miller of Georgia) had qualified. Instead, the Amateur was populated by such fascinating figures as a cement-block multimillionaire who owns the Detroit Playboy Club; a tiny Indian duplicate of Lee Trevino; and a Los Angeles hot dog who is an ex-husband of Jill St. John. And don't forget all those kids with no names.
Until Fleisher's surge to the top, the Scioto focus had been mostly on Michael Bonallack, the debonair Englishman who is a combination of all the Albert Finney characters ever seen and who won practically every British amateur event there was to win in 1968. American galleries know him, too; Bonallack had played in two previous U.S. Amateurs (in 1961 and 1965), on five Walker Cup teams and in the 1966 Masters, where he missed the cut. He also made an appearance last January, while on a business trip, at the Kaiser Open in Silverado outside San Francisco, where he was the low amateur. But all of this had come before he changed his hurdy-gurdy swing to a more fluid, one-piece motion. "I was never really much of a golfer before this year," he said at Scioto. "But my wrists aren't rolling anymore, and I can hit it much farther."
Bonallack had previously hit the ball with the flippy wrist action at the top of his backswing that is so common among British players. Sometimes he was so flippy that he struck himself in the back with the club head. This habit prevented him from gaining both accuracy and the distance expected of a man of his proportions (6'1½", 190 pounds). But during the winter Bonallack had his swing changed at Leslie King's Golf School in London, and the results have proved dramatic. He won his Essex County championship by 19 shots. In June he destroyed Joe Carr in the finals of the British Amateur 7 and 6, and in July he led the British Open after the first round. He also shot a 61 in the morning round of a match for the English Amateur championship, which he then won 12 and 11.
Michael's wife, the former Angela Ward, was a Curtis Cup team member six times and the winner of the English women's title twice, and his sister, Sally Barber, is the present English women's champion. With all that golfing tradition and all that golfing family and a new, nonflippy swing as well, Michael Bonallack looked like a pretty good bet to win the U.S. Amateur.
When he arrived at Scioto for three practice rounds, Bonallack was greeted warmly and treated as a visiting celebrity, which he was, and housed extravagantly in a British castle, which it was, almost. He stayed with Gerald Gal-breath, the nephew of John Galbreath, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Darby Dan Farm, whose home, with its five chimneys and seven bedrooms, resembles a royal English manor and sits just off the third green at Scioto.
In addition to the Galbreaths, Bonallack seemed to have brought along his own vest-pocket gallery. There was Ben Wright of the Financial Times, Pat Ward Thomas of The Guardian and Rex Bellamy of The Times of London, all of whom had come across the ocean to cover Michael. And then there was Ken Platt, an Englishman from nearby Worthington, Ohio, who carried a genuine Union Jack and a towel inscribed, "I'm backing Britain." They had figured on Michael's winning, as had many others who installed him as the favorite, but they had not figured on Scioto.
Universally recognized among the fine courses in America, Scioto was fully expected to be a demanding test even if left to its own resources. The second hole, a 436-yard uphill par 4 and the 14th, a 235-yard horror show of a par 3, are two of the toughest holes anywhere, but all week long much criticism had been leveled at the USGA for tampering with the course and, because of its passion for par 70 layouts, shortening the eighth hole from 510 to 450 yards, thus creating an impossible par 4.
"This is a great course, but it is difficult enough as it is," said Bill Campbell, who won the last match play Amateur in 1964. "The way they have set it up now, it is a U.S. Open course—a pro-type course—and we're all amateurs."
Of all the rounds played during the tournament, only five were under par, a fact that attests to Campbell's concern. The evil 8th was not impossible, but it was terrifying for anyone who, after walking down the fairway to his tee shot, looked up at the scene in front of him. There, not far away, was a wide creek that flowed left into a wider lake that funneled into the island green 180 yards away and then, moat-like, curled completely around it. A yawning trap guarded the right front of the green, and large willows wept along the rear. And then there was that water all around.
If a golfer paused long enough to stop trembling, he might appreciate the beauty of the hole, or at least be able to choose a club to hold the slick surface. But then there were those gray-haired, blazered officials, standing watch on the island like a flock of buzzards, just waiting to tell everyone where his ball went into the water and where he should drop it. And there were all those people gathered along the banks, joking and laughing at all the splashes and watching everybody drop it. And then, sure enough—plunk, plunk, plunk—you went in the water and then you dropped it. Oh, it was a helluva lot of fun, the 8th.
On Wednesday the first threesome to come through the 8th hit two balls in the water and came off the green four over par for the hole. That was just for starters. Subsequently, the USGA men counted 36 more balls in the water that day, and then stopped counting.
Even so, it was the treacherous 14th hole that proved the most dangerous for the early leaders. The 14th demands a booming four-wood to a green that awaits with huge bunkers to the sides, a steep dropoff into bushes on the right and deep grass under trees to the left.
Bonallack was one under par when he got there and double-bogeyed. Later in the day Fleisher was two under coming to 14, and he, too, took a double bogey. As it turned out, Bonallack came in with a 71, sharing the first-round lead with Miller and Jack Veghte, the 33-year-old Florida State champion who has one of the few remaining flattop haircuts in major sports.
Veghte had started fast, going four under par for 12 holes. But, after noticing his substantial lead, he "went into complete shock" and blew to five over par in the next six holes and right out of contention the next day.
By that time Bonallack had also faltered and with another double bogey on 14 he had lost his lead. He came in from the second round at 144, only one stroke behind Fleisher and Green, but one that he was never to make up. He shot a 75 the third round and a 77 the final day to finish in a tie for 11th.
Hubert Green, a gangly, curly-haired country boy from Alabama, was on or around the lead many times during the first two days—it was a good week for Huberts—quickly forcing the word to spread that "this kid can play." The local papers, bubbling over, likened his face to everybody from Abraham Lincoln to Huckleberry Finn, and his strange putting style was generally considered entertaining.
Green uses a lady's putter and bends way over, his hands halfway down the shaft and four inches apart, his eyes peering at the ball as if it were a lost contact lens. On his stroke he resembles the janitor sweeping the gymnasium floor. Then he rolls in a 25-footer, and abruptly the guffaws stop. "Give him a cherry pop and he looks like a thermometer," said one spectator, inspecting Green's skeletal frame. But Hubert looked good on the scoreboard.
For two days he had played beside Dale Morey, the 49-year-old veteran from North Carolina, who was one of the sentimental favorites in this 68th amateur championship. Over the past few months Morey has been playing some of the finest golf of his long career, and at Scioto he was trying to fight his way back onto the Walker Cup and Eisenhower Trophy teams—he was left off both during the last selection period.
Morey showed some impressive credentials in the first 36 holes. Helped by a hole in one on the 17th during the first round and a 35-foot putt for a deuce at the same green the next day, Dale stood at 145, two strokes off the pace. But on the last two days he faltered, shooting 76-77 to finish well back.
Though Morey was popular, it was Fleisher and Green who, playing head to head on Friday, brought out the crowds and refused to wilt under all that attention in the third round. As Bonallack, whose swing had broken into many pieces and now resembled the motion of a Ferris wheel, stumbled home with his 75 and Morey with his 76, Fleisher and Green, laughing and joking as they went, staged a battle that somewhat resembled a friendly college Nassau with the loser buying the brew.
Bruce finished the day with a two-stroke lead on Hubert, but meanwhile two other college kids, Lewis and Barbarossa, had moved up among the leaders with third-round 70s. So here they were on the final day, the four of them paired in the last two groups—Green and Lewis, Barbarossa and Fleisher—with "old" Vinnie Giles, six strokes down, playing up there ahead.
Giles got hot quickly with three birds, but there came that hole again—the 8th—and Vinnie was momentarily stopped by a bogey. Behind him, most of the kids were beginning to vanish out of sight, lost in a hail of tension and trouble, but Fleisher, playing with casual abandon, had gone three under par and remained that way. It was not until the 15th that he lost a stroke, three-putting. When he drove into a gully on the next hole just before Giles rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt on 17 to cut the lead to one shot, he was fully capable, everyone thought, of blowing sky high.
But, with the pressure of that blazing round up ahead, cool Bruce just flashed his tape and his teeth a few times, shook his head in amusement and came out of the gully for his par. On 18 he looked all the galleries and the USGA officials and the TV cameras and Chris and Byron and everybody right in the eye and knocked a three-iron approach 12 feet from the hole, covering the flag all the way. He took his two putts, picked up the ball and threw it back down the fairway. The National Amateur had a new Golden Guy for a champion. Stick around. Bruce Fleisher is here.
After playing the treacherous 14th hole at Scioto, not even Fleisher could muster a smile.
British Amateur Champion Mike Bonallack gave it a good try for two rounds, then fell apart.