NIKE VET MAKES THE BIG JUMP
Steve Flesch was sick of hearing the numbers. His family kept
reminding him of where he had to finish in last week's Nike Tour
Championship at the Grand National Golf Club in Opelika, Ala.,
to jump into the top 15 on the money list and earn his PGA Tour
card. The scenarios were mind-boggling. "I was tired of hearing
I had to do this or that, and if I didn't do this, but this guy
did that, I could still make it," says the 30-year-old Flesch.
"I told them to knock it off. I just wanted to play golf."
The bottom line was that Flesch, who entered the tournament 24th
on the money list, needed to finish in the top three at Opelika
or it was back to Q school for the seventh straight year. Last
week he responded with three of his best rounds of the year,
firing a three-under 69 and consecutive 68s to take a four-shot
lead over J.L. Lewis entering the final day. Despite shooting a
73 on Sunday, Flesch held on for a four-stroke victory over
Chris Smith, who was the tour's leading money winner. The win,
Flesch's first on the Nike tour, was worth $54,000 and vaulted
him to fourth on the money list and onto the regular Tour.
"Every Sunday my dad and I would sit in front of the television
and watch Tour events," Flesch said. "I always said that one day
I was going to be on Tour. Now I am. I can't believe it."
It was a long, difficult road for Flesch. Growing up, he wanted
to play baseball or basketball but was never big enough. As a
5'2", 89-pound junior, he led Covington (Ky.) Catholic, which is
just outside of Cincinnati, to the state championship in golf.
After four years on a golf scholarship at Kentucky, Flesch, who
had added eight inches and 60 pounds to his frame, began his
quest to play on the PGA Tour.
From 1991 to '96 he played on the Asian tour during the winter
and on various minitours in the spring and summer. Each fall he
tried without success to get through Q school. It wasn't until
last year that he finally qualified for the Nike tour. Last week
Flesch turned what many players called the toughest track on the
tour into a pitch and putt. After he double bogeyed the 3rd hole
on Sunday and saw his lead reduced to three strokes, Flesch
calmly birdied the 4th and never led by less than four the rest
of the way.
As they followed their son during the final round, Jerry and
Melinda Flesch could barely suppress their anxiety. "We've been
through Q school six times already," Jerry said after the
tournament, "and we didn't want to have to go through it all
WADKINS HASN'T WON, BUT HE FEELS LIKE A WINNER
Bobby Wadkins was watching David Duval with keen interest two
weeks ago. Before finishing first in the Michelob Championship
at Kingsmill in Williamsburg,Va., Duval had been less than
$80,000 away from breaking Wadkins's record for most Tour
earnings without a win. "If he had lost that tournament, you
guys could have started asking him the questions you've been
asking me for years," says Wadkins, who has won $2.62 million in
his 23-year career.
The 46-year-old Wadkins spent this season on the Nike circuit
after losing his PGA Tour card last year. By tying for 10th at
last week's Nike Tour Championship, Wadkins raised his 1997
earnings to $101,717 and claimed--by a mere $417--the 15th and
final one-year regular Tour exemption. His Tour card, however,
did not come without some desperate digging in on Sunday, when a
visibly nervous Wadkins shot a 76 and had to make five long
par-saving putts on the back nine, including a 10-foot bender on
number 18. "I'm happy about getting back on the Tour," Wadkins
said, "but I actually might consider going back to Q school to
improve my position."
Wadkins was prepared to return to the Nike tour if he hadn't
earned an exemption. His primary goal is to sharpen his skills
for the Senior tour, for which he will be eligible in July 2001.
"I love golf too much to give it up," he says. "While I feel I'm
good enough to keep playing [on the PGA Tour], I had decided
that Bobby Wadkins needs to be playing golf 25 weeks a year
somewhere to get ready for the Senior tour."
Unlike his brother Lanny, a 21-time winner on Tour and the 1985
PGA player of the year, Bobby wasn't certain that he wanted to
play golf professionally and considered a career in pro
baseball. Yet despite his winless streak he's amazed at what he
has accomplished in the game. "I've presented George Bush with a
fly-fishing rod, and my brother and I have eaten with presidents
and three-star generals," he says. "To think two brothers from a
small rural town in Chesterfield County, Virginia, could do all
that--now that's unbelievable."
As for the streak, he professes little concern. "The press likes
to write about it," says Wadkins, who has finished second six
times, losing twice in playoffs. "To tell you the truth, I never
really think about it until I finish second and people start
asking me questions. Don't get me wrong--the Number 1 reason I'm
out here is to win, but I'd much rather have the career I've had
than win one or two tournaments."
UNLIKELY HERO EMERGES IN THE DUNHILL CUP
An introverted young South African with an effortless swing last
week led his country to its first victory in the Dunhill Cup.
No, it wasn't Ernie Els who starred, but rather 28-year-old
Retief Goosen, who won all five of his matches at St. Andrews,
including a crucial four-stroke victory over Sweden's Jesper
Parnevik in Sunday's final round. South Africa now holds the
Dunhill and World Cup titles.
In 1987 Goosen was struck by lightning while playing golf in his
northern Transvaal hometown of Pietersburg, resulting in a
ruptured eardrum, a heart murmur and burns. After spending two
months in the hospital, Goosen recovered to become, along with
Els, one of South Africa's most celebrated golfers. In 1990 he
won the South African Amateur and was named the South African
tour's rookie of the year one year later. In 1993, his first
full season on the European tour, he finished second at the
Dubai Desert Classic and went on to win three times in South
Africa. But he has only won twice since, and his performance in
the majors, where he has never finished higher than 10th, has
been especially underwhelming.
His heroics at St. Andrews, however, were somewhat overshadowed
by the record-breaking performance of Joakim Haeggman in
Sweden's semifinal upset of the U.S. In his win over Justin
Leonard, Haeggman shot an Old Course-record 27 on the front
nine. Said Leonard of Haeggman, who would lose to Els in the
finals, "All I said was 'Good putt,' 'Good shot,' 'Nice drive,'
'That's perfect.' I made sure I kept the card real neat because
I knew it was going on a wall somewhere."
THE MONSTER KEEPS ITS BITE
The Blue Monster at Doral Resort and Country Club, site of the
Tour's Doral-Ryder Open every March, won one and lost five over
the summer. Due to the nearly 50 inches of rain that fell on the
Miami area between June and September, five of the course's 117
bunkers were damaged so severely that they were simply filled
in. That's not to say the Blue Monster has become a stroll in
the park. The resort added a challenging pin position to the
infamous closing hole, a 435-yard par-4 that this year already
ranks as the third-hardest (4.404 stroke average) finisher on
Before the change the back-left quarter of the 18th green sloped
too severely toward a lake to cut a hole there. That section was
recently raised nine inches to accommodate a pin position. To
reach that part of the green, players will have to carry their
approach shots over the lake. "The new flag will make things a
lot more interesting on Sunday," says Steve Friedlander, Doral's
director of golf.
THE SHAG BAG
Brad Faxon accepted much of the blame for the U.S.'s semifinal
loss to Sweden at the Dunhill Cup. With a two-over-par 74 he
lost to Per-Ulrik Johansson by three strokes. "I'm going to take
the brunt of this because I could've played better," said Faxon.
"It was a disappointing day with the putter."... Juli Inskter
sank a 12-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to win the
LPGA Samsung World Championship of Women's Golf last week in
Seoul over Helen Alfredsson and Kelly Robbins. It was Inskter's
first win since 1992. The tournament was particularly
disappointing for Alfredsson, who missed a three-foot birdie
putt on the final hole of regulation that would have given her a
win for the first time since 1994.... The Dinah Shore increased
its purse by $100,000, to $1 million. The tournament had been
the only LPGA major offering less than $1 million in prize money.
COLOR PHOTO: KARIM SHAMSI-BASHA Flesch got one of the spots on Tour that go to the top 15 on the Nike money list. [Steve Flesch golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: MATTHEW HARRIS Lehman, the '91 No. 1, made good. [Tom Lehman kissing British Open trophy]
A ROAD TO SUCCESS
Where have you gone John Flannery? After topping the Nike tour
money list in 1992--thus earning a one-year exemption on the PGA
Tour--Flannery all but disappeared, losing his card in 1994.
However, most of 1997 pacesetter Chris Smith's predecessors as
the Nike tour's leading money winner have moved on to successful
careers on the regular Tour.
Player Year Since Then
Stewart Cink 1996 The likely Tour rookie of the year, he won
the Greater Hartford Open in July and is
27th on the money list ($739,18)
Jerry Kelly 1995 He has slipped to 100th in earnings after a
solid rookie season during which he had four
top 10 finishes and was 59th on the money
Chris Perry 1994 He's enjoying the best year of his career,
having earned $447,664 and tied for second
at last month's B.C. Open
Sean Murphy 1993 He lost his card in '94, received another
one-year exemption in '95, then lost his
card again in '96. He finished 60th on the
Nike tour this year'
John Flannery 1992 Plummeted from 102nd on the money list in
'93 to 159th in '94; currently playing on
Tom Lehman 1991 He was the Tour's player of the year in '96,
when he won the British Open. He also played
on the '95 and '97 Ryder Cup teams
Jeff Maggert 1990 Despite only one Tour win, he has 44 top 10
finishes and was one of the U.S.'s top
performers at last month's Ryder Cup
What do these players have in common?
They're the last three pros whose first two PGA Tour wins
occurred on consecutive weeks.
Strokes under par by Bert Atkinson of Charleston, S.C., in last
week's preliminary rounds of the U.S. Mid-Amateur in Dallas,
tying the record for the lowest score in a 36-hole USGA qualifier.