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Weary Warrior Winning has come easy to Bruce Fleisher. It's all the stuff that goes along with it that has got him beat

The biggest problem I have," said the Senior tour's leading money
winner, "is I haven't figured out the eating." As if to prove his
point, Bruce Fleisher released a handful of goldfish crackers on
the white tablecloth and stared at them. He picked up one and
popped it in his mouth. He moved a couple of others to make a
more pleasing tableau.

The problem, he said, was that as a consistent contender on the
Senior tour, on which he has won nine tournaments in 14 months,
he keeps getting tee times that are elevenish. In his previous
life as a consistent nonwinner on the PGA Tour (one victory in
more than 400 tries), Fleisher usually drew early-morning or
mid-morning times on the weekends--perfect for squeezing in a
relaxing round between breakfast and lunch. "Now I tee off at 11
or 11:30," he said. "I don't eat, and by three I'm drained."

He took a swig from his Dr Pepper bottle and culled two more
goldfish from the school on the table. Johnnie Cochran never made
a stronger case. "You don't realize it," Fleisher said. "You're
starving your brain. You get light-headed."

This conversation took place last Saturday after Fleisher had
completed the second of three rounds at the Open
in Sarasota, Fla. He said he was tired, and he looked tired. His
face was almost as gray as his hair. After rounds of 66-69 on the
par-72 TPC at Prestancia course, he trailed the second-round
leader, Bruce Summerhays, by only four strokes, and Tom Wargo,
who would win in a playoff with Gary McCord and J.C. Snead, by
just one. But Fleisher didn't look as if he were ready to make a
Sunday charge. On the back nine he had gotten faint whenever he
bent over. He could have used the peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches his wife, Wendy, sometimes makes for him to carry in
his bag. But Wendy was back home in Ballen Isles, Fla.

"The other thing I haven't figured out," he said, "is how much
golf I want to play." That should be easy. All Fleisher has to do
is decide how many times he wants to win this year and then
multiply that by 4.11, his tournaments-entered-per-win average
since he joined the Senior tour a year ago. To match the seven
wins of his rookie-of-the-year and player-of-the-year season,
Fleisher would have to enter 29 tournaments in 2000. Assuming, of
course, that his play doesn't slip because of the distractions.

Did we mention the distractions? Fleisher's real problem is the
four-line telephone in his home office. It rings all the time.
The fax machine never stops running. The biggest annoyance, and
he good-naturedly blamed AT&T for it last week, is
call-waiting--that annoying click-click that interrupts a
conversation, forcing you to start a second conversation while
the other phone buttons are flashing and the fax is chattering,
until finally, as he explained with a rueful smile, "your brain
blows up."

The problem is that Fleisher, for his first 50 years, was an
easygoing, approachable guy, the sort of fellow who winks at
kids, indulges bores and signs the odd autograph for the even
odder autograph seeker. "I made hundreds and hundreds of
friends," he said, staring glumly at the goldfish. Now his
hundreds of friends, thrilled by his career turnaround, phone
him or write him whenever he wins a tournament. Or loses a
tournament. Last Friday night Fleisher called home and learned
that he had 50 more letters and calls to answer, most of them
from people too decent to snub. "I've got an unlisted number
that everybody seems to know," he said. "It's just
overwhelming." Another goldfish disappeared.

McCord, the mustachioed CBS golf analyst, laughs when asked
about Fleisher's "problem." McCord won twice as a Senior rookie
last year, shocking the world even more than Fleisher did. He
knows what it's like to walk around with a pleasantly startled
look on your face.

"Bruce still can't believe what he's doing," McCord says. "He
has guys coming at him who were show ponies on the big
Tour"--such as two-time Senior tour player of the year Hale
Irwin and recently arrived stars Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Tom
Watson--"and for years he was eating their dust. Only now he can
handle them." McCord lifted his eyebrows in wonderment.
"Actually, Bruce has just the game you want on this tour. He's
one of the straightest drivers we have. He's wonderful inside
100 yards. He's a very good putter, and he has a good golf brain."

Trouble is, by humbling the players who used to lodge about 70
spots above him on the money list, Fleisher shatters the Senior
tour's marketing plan. He is an amiable guy, clued in and
mordantly funny, but on the course he's as animated as a ball

Fleisher got off well in February by defending his title in the
Royal Caribbean Classic. Two weeks later he routed the field at
the GTE Classic, beating his closest pursuer, Dana Quigley, by
four shots. That made Fleisher the first man in tour history to
win nine times in his first 36 starts. ("He proved that he's
still the sheriff in town," said Quigley.) With his 12th-place
finish in Sarasota, Fleisher showed that he can stay in the hunt
even when he's off his game.

The goldfish were almost gone. The Dr Pepper bottle was empty.
Fleisher, though hardly euphoric, seemed revitalized. "I can
control the demands on my time," he said. "If I get tired, I'll
back off." What he won't do is compromise his game to escape the
attention that winning brings. "If I'm in the running again for
player of the year or the money title, I'm going for it. I mean,
how many times do you get the chance?"

Fleisher's hot start allows for a literal answer to his
rhetorical question: Twice? Certainly. Three times? Maybe. "The
best part of all this," he said, "is walking onto the 1st tee
knowing that the other players respect you. It's being able to
smile, knowing that you played well under extreme pressure."
There also is the ultimate buzz, the one he has enjoyed nine
times now. "There's no better feeling than walking up the 18th
hole at the end," he said.

He popped the last goldfish in his mouth and stood. "I'm still a
little insecure," he confessed. "I worry that I'll wake up
someday and it won't be real."

That would be a problem, all right.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG TROUBLESHOOTER It had been almost five years between victories for Wargo, 57, who ended a playoff with a birdie on the third hole.

"[Fleisher] has guys coming at him who were show ponies "on the
big Tour," says McCord. "Now he can handle them."