Once there was almost Billy Joe Patton and later there was almost Ken Venturi, amateurs both who came close—oh, just about this close—to winning the Masters championship. Last week Bruce Fleisher, a 20-year-old Miami college boy with eyes full of stars and veins full of ice cubes, gave the Masters still another "almost" amateur. He did not really come close to winning, but there will be other days for that. As much with his style as with his swing, Bruce Fleisher almost turned Augusta National—staid, aristocratic, square old Augusta National—into a teen-age sockhop.
It was not his score (69-75-73-83—300) so much as how he played that made every hole a rock picnic and himself the boss idol of Georgia's children, a group that during Masters week was once ruled only by Arnold Palmer and the Easter bunny.
Fleisher came to Augusta as the reigning U.S. amateur champion, a title he won last summer at Scioto while charming galleries with his tee shots and his fringe-bottom pants. After watching his act (minus the fringe) on Thursday, when he was paired with Palmer, the nation's press immediately went into stark shock and acclaimed him as the Joe Namath of golf. Here was Bruce Fleisher, went the early line, a cocky kid who got lucky for a week in August and won himself an invitation to the Masters. So he goes head to head in the first round with the king, "Ol' Ahno, Ahno Pomma." Bound to go tight in the neck, skull a few and shoot 80, right?
Well, in the face of that pressure, not to mention the tons of Masters tradition that must weigh on a 20-year-old amateur, all Fleisher did on the very first tee was crunch one 30 yards past Ahno, airmailed it past him, mind you, and go on from there to shoot 34-35—69 and beat Palmer by four shots. Not only did he outplay him, he honest-to-gosh outsexed him, too. Arnold Palmer outsexed? Listen, folks. Bruce Fleisher, 6'3", sandy-haired manchild, will soon put away his Clearasil to become the next Jewish superstar of sport. He is a little bit of Palmer, Namath and Sandy Koufax in one. And if Mrs. Robinson had been walking Augusta on Thursday, Dustin Hoffman wouldn't have had a chance, either.
This word naturally went out after the first day, and screaming, teeny-bopping legions congregated at every hole Bruce passed, watching him swagger, listening to him sing and just plain adoring his way.
What are you singing out there? asked the press. "...coconut milk and brown skin girls," said Bruce.
What kind of guy are you? they asked. "Just a normal American kid," he said.
What kind of student? "A nice one." Why did you go to Miami-Dade Junior College? "Because I'm dumb and the weather is hot."
Fleisher wore a strip of white tape on his wrist ("It looks pretty tough. Don't you think it looks tough?") and tight pants, which he calls "lidos." He also stuck a tee behind his ear and never stopped grinning at all the commotion of girls fighting each other to touch him, get his cup of Coke, his pencil, anything, as he made his way between holes.
The true love-in came at the back of Augusta's lake hole, the 16th, where eight million little girls camped on blankets in a full beach party, all waiting to claim Fleisher as their own. On each of his rounds they waited for the crowd applause to die as the golfers came to the green, then exploded into a cheer of their own. "We've got to call them Brucie's Babies," said Charlie DeLucca, a Miami pro who taught Fleisher much of what he knows about the game. "None of them are over 14."
On Saturday, however, Wendy Scott, Bruce's real-life blonde baby from Miami, showed up in white bellbottoms and broke a few hearts. "They can have him now," she said of her younger competition. "We'll just wait to see who gets him later."
Wendy trudged up the hill toward 18 and stopped. "All I can remember is last year when I followed him in the Open and I was all alone," she said. "Imagine, just me and a few little kids. I don't think it will ever be the same."