When Jessica Fleisher was three, she knew her golfers. That's
because her mom, Wendy, pointed out the players walking the
course with Jessica's father, Bruce, and told her who they were.
Of course a three-year-old has questions. "She asked me, 'Is
Daddy as good as Jack Nicklaus?'" Wendy recalls, "and I said,
'No, but Jack Nicklaus is very, very good.' Then she asked, 'Is
Daddy as good as Tickle Monster?' That's what she called Payne
Stewart--we were really close to him--and I said, 'No, but Daddy
has done better than him sometimes when they play together.'
Then she asked, 'Well, who is Daddy as good as?'"
It took 16 years for Jessica to get a definitive answer, but on
the 1999 Senior tour, her daddy was better than everyone. Seven
victories, seven runner-up finishes, $2.5 million in earnings
and the No. 1 spot on the money list say so. Hale Irwin, king of
the tour the previous two seasons, has been dethroned by a
Gary McCord was performing in the press tent after the third
round of last week's Ingersoll-Rand Senior Tour Championship at
the Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when he
noticed that Fleisher, who had a share of the lead and was
threatening to win number 8, was waiting nearby for his turn to
answer questions. "How much is enough, Flash?" McCord asked.
"Tell me, how much is enough?"
Fleisher supplied an answer the next afternoon. He had been the
tour's ace closer all year, but suddenly he looked like John
Rocker in October while McCord, who never won a PGA Tour event
and loves to talk about his ineptitude, finished like the
Yankees. McCord holed a 45-foot birdie putt at the 10th hole,
saved par with putts of at least six feet on four of the next
six holes and took the lead with a 20-footer for birdie at 17. A
par on 18 gave him a five-under 67, which, combined with the 64
he shot the day before, made him 13 under for the weekend and 12
under for the week.
The role reversal was complete when Fleisher's birdie putt at the
15th hung on the lip, and he followed with a couple of bogeys. A
birdie at the difficult 18th lifted Fleisher into a tie for
second with Larry Nelson, who had closed with a 65, a stroke
The perfect ending to a perfect season would have had Fleisher,
who opened the year by winning the first two full-field events,
chalking up his eighth victory a few hours after Tiger Woods had
done the same thing in Spain. Alas, such sweet symmetry was not
to be. Instead, the millennium ended with an almost unfathomable
second Senior win by McCord, who had been 0-for-life going into
the season--not counting the 1991 Ben Hogan Gateway Open, an event
that died shortly after he won it, no doubt a suicide.
McCord's week in Myrtle Beach was like a sitcom, which was
appropriate considering that he is shopping an idea for one
about the zany denizens of Tired Tree Muni, a decidedly low-rent
golf course. For openers, McCord shot 65 in a practice round and
"never made a bogey," he said. "Made seven birdies. I thought,
Wow, I got it." The next day, in the pro-am, he shot a 78 and
said the first thing that came to his mind was, Wow, I haven't
got it. McCord began the tournament with a 71 and followed with
a 74, which precipitated a long session on the range.
"Usually, if you don't have it, you can get it back the next
week if you work hard," McCord said. "But we only had two more
rounds so I couldn't let it go." Why the sense of urgency?
Because McCord began the week 25th on the money list and only
the top 24 don't have to play both weekly pro-am rounds. To
someone with as much on his plate as McCord, making the top 24
is like receiving a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.
What finally set him free, McCord said, was something he
remembered on Friday evening, one of Woods's mantras: wide,
tight and rip it. By mimicking Tiger's wide takeaway, McCord
made a better weight shift. Tight meant keeping his left knee
still and turning his shoulders instead. We all know what rip it
means, and we also know how McCord fared on the weekend. The
$347,000 he won was more than enough to give him Wednesdays off
and left him only $7,000 short of one of his goals for the year,
to make $1 million. Not bad considering he played only 17
tournaments. "It's a stupid game," said McCord. "You attack it,
don't give up, and you never know when it's going to go boink
right in front of you. That's basically what it did. A week like
this is unbelievable."
The week--boink--belonged to McCord, but the year was
Fleisher's. A phenom who won the 1968 U.S. Amateur and then
stole the show at the '69 Masters by outscoring his playing
partner, Arnold Palmer, in the first round, Fleisher never lived
up to expectations and by the late-'80s had drifted off the Tour
and into a club pro's job. He remained competitive, winning a
slew of club pro events as well as, at 42, his only Tour title,
the 1991 New England Classic, to which he gained entry as the
first alternate. He was among the lucky eight to make it through
last fall's Senior Q school, and once on the tour he took no
prisoners. "We waited 30 years for a year like this," says Wendy.
When Fleisher shot 73 in the second round last week, he ended a
streak of 16 subpar rounds. "Bruce is in that little inner
sanctum of playing well, and he's been in it the whole year,"
said McCord. "Most of us are outside that sanctum trying to get
in. If Bruce shoots 71 or 72, that's a freak show for him. He's
used to shooting 67, 68. Sports psychiatrists call it the zone.
He's pretty much been baptized in the zone this year, just like
Hale Irwin was last year."
There is no real secret to Fleisher's success. On the regular
Tour he was a short, low-ball hitter up against long, high-ball
hitters such as Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. On the Senior tour
all you've got to do to be successful is hit the ball reasonably
straight, wield a deadly wedge and putt like a 30-year-old. That
describes Fleisher's game. On the PGA Tour he was good enough
around the greens to hang in there with much younger players and,
once he turned 50, lead the Senior tour in putting, which allowed
him to beat his peers like a set of congas.
For Fleisher the most difficult aspect of the season was dealing
with everything that came with his success. A humble man whose
lack of confidence may have held him back in the past, Fleisher
found the extra attention unnerving at first. "I've always been
intimidated by Raymond Floyd, a guy who's won Opens and Masters,"
says Fleisher. "Raymond has actually talked to me in the last few
weeks--not that he snubbed me before. I got, 'Good playing,
Bruce.' I liked that. To have my name mentioned in the same
sentence with Hale Irwin's, a man who has been so successful his
whole life, is wonderful."
The entire year has been a wonder. Fleisher never dreamed he
would play in 32 events, but his outlook changed when he climbed
to the top of the money list and entered uncharted territory as
the man to beat. "He has never tried to be Number 1," Wendy says,
"but once he and Hale were neck and neck, he wanted to achieve
that. It wasn't because it was Hale Irwin. Bruce doesn't think
he'll ever be a Hale Irwin. He just thought he might never get
another chance to be Number 1, so he had to go for it."
Adding to the pressure was a $350,000 bonus in Fleisher's
endorsement deal with Callaway if he finished atop the money
list. The price of going for the gold? Last February, Fleisher
was hospitalized with a viral infection and ended up missing four
tournaments. He hasn't been home to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in
15 weeks, so he hasn't enjoyed the new floors he put in his house
or the high-tech thin-screen TV that hangs from a living room
wall. "It has been a satisfying year," he says. "But fun? It
hasn't been fun. It's been a lot of sweat. Television always has
its eyeball on you. You're always dealing with your self-image,
your ego. It's fun now because it's over. I just want to go
Wendy has been home only once in three months, stopping off for
12 hours after flying from Los Angeles to attend Payne Stewart's
memorial service in Orlando. Wendy says Stewart's widow, Tracey,
told her, "Don't waste a minute with Bruce."
Stewart's death still hurts Fleisher, who wears a pin on his
lapel in Stewart's memory. Fleisher had a tough day last Friday
when an old friend from Wilmington, N.C., where Fleisher grew up,
came to watch him play. The friend is dying of cancer and was
driven around the course in a cart. "When we saw him," Wendy
says, "Bruce couldn't justify in his mind that we're having the
best year of our lives."
That was just another stressed-out day in a stressed-out year
that doesn't seem to end. The Fleishers left Myrtle Beach on
Sunday night for an outing in Nashville. They're scheduled to go
to Puerto Rico for this week's Senior Match Play Challenge. After
that comes the Nov. 18-20 Callaway Invitational at Pebble Beach,
followed by two days in Los Angeles to shoot a commercial and
then--at last!--home for 10 days around Thanksgiving. Fleisher will
play in the Diners Club Matches in December, and then he and
Wendy will go on a weeklong Christmas cruise, a bonus for winning
the Royal Caribbean Classic. About two weeks after that, the 2000
season kicks off.
There barely seems to be time to breathe, much less recharge the
batteries and savor a career year. "When I sit down at
Thanksgiving dinner with my whole family," Fleisher says, a
smile creeping over his face, "that's when I'm going to say,
'Wow, what a special year.'"
Jessica will be there. She's 19 and a sophomore at Florida. "She
thinks her father is the bomb," Wendy says. In teenspeak, that
means he's great.
That's right, Jessica. In 1999 Dad was the best.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Having a blast Fleisher finished second at the Senior Tour Championship, but had already wrapped up the 1999 money title.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Sneaky good The wisecracking McCord turned serious when he saw his chance of avoiding Wednesday pro-ams slipping away.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Hale of a year Irwin wound up with five wins and more than $2 million.
If Bruce Fleisher had won last week in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he
would have become the winningest first-year player ever on the
Senior tour. Here are the best rookie seasons in the tour's
STARTS MONEY WINS
Bruce Fleisher '99 32 $2,515,705 7
Lee Trevino '90 28 1,190,518 7
Bruce Crampton '86 27 454,299 7
Gil Morgan '97 25 2,160,562 6
Allen Doyle '99 31 1,911,640 4
John Bland '96 35 1,357,987 4
George Archer '90 32 749,691 4
Dale Douglass '86 23 309,760 4
Lee Elder '85 23 307,795 4
"If Bruce shoots 71 or 72, that's a freak show for him," said
McCord. "He's used to shooting 67 or 68."