Say this for the menu at last week's U.S. Senior Open at Saucon
Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa.: It offered a rather
unsurprising entree in Hale Irwin, but the appetizers were
tempting. There was first-round noise (a four-under 67) from Jack
Nicklaus, who predictably faded to 21st, losing Low Legend honors
to Tom Watson, who tied for 10th. There was a spirited rally (a
65) last Friday by the horseplayer's favorite, Jim Thorpe, who
frequented the off-track betting parlor near the course by night
but too few of Saucon's fairways by day and tied for sixth. There
was a 65 and two other subpar rounds by the sad-faced slasher,
Hubert Green, who couldn't get it going on Sunday and finished
fifth, nine strokes behind Irwin. Finally there was the
final-round toreador act of Bruce Fleisher, who provided an
answer to the question, Can you be the Senior tour's best player
if you can't hold a two-stroke lead in the circuit's premier
That answer is no. Fleisher, who was on target to become the
first wire-to-wire winner in the Senior Open since Simon Hobday
in 1994, didn't implode on Sunday, but he didn't do much more
than step back and wave a red cape as Irwin charged by, either.
Fleisher shot a 70 in the final round, a score that has won many
a major but was matched or bettered by 22 players at submissive
Saucon on Sunday, and he wound up in second, three strokes behind
Irwin's 17-under 267 was the lowest winning score in Senior Open
history (three better than Gary Player's total in 1987 at
Brooklawn in Fairfield, Conn.), and there was much
stomach-gurgling concern among USGA officials about all the red
numbers. They did everything but put the pins in bunkers to
toughen Saucon, but a rainstorm before play began and another
late Thursday softened the greens, and they remained that way
throughout the tournament.
Along with the low scores, the 21st Senior Open will also be
remembered for its high emotion, most of it supplied by
70-year-old Arnold Palmer, who again hinted that his competitive
days are numbered. Palmer's wife, the former Winnie Walzer, was
from nearby Coopersburg, and hardly an hour went by that Arnie
didn't see some old friend or acquaintance who reminded him of
Winnie, who died last November. A few days before the tournament
Palmer broke down when an artist presented him with a portrait
of him and Winnie. He desperately wanted to play well (these
days that means making the cut), but he bowed out after rounds
of 76 and 82. "I'm not going to continue to play the way I am,"
he said. "I have a few commitments to keep tournamentwise and a
couple of exhibitions to play, but it's getting to the end of
the line. The game has been good to me, and I don't want to ruin
it by pushing it too far. It's a painful way to play."
Painful is one way to describe Fleisher's mental approach to the
final round and, in fact, the entire tournament. Even as he
conducted a clinic during the first three rounds, knocking down
pins and bogeying only four holes, he sounded like a man just
happy to be in the esteemed company of Nicklaus, Irwin, Tom Kite
and Brian Gaddy. (All right, maybe not Brian Gaddy.) Memo to
Fleisher: Dude, you are The Man, or at least you're supposed to
be. After a third-round 67 (topped only by Irwin's 65 and 66s by
Kite and John Mahaffey) set the stage for a mano a mano duel with
Irwin, Fleisher offered these Ali-like predictions: "Hopefully I
can make a few putts, play well and have some kind of chance to
win" and "I may not play worth a damn, but I'm going to try."
He called Irwin "the man to beat" and talked of trying to go
into the final round "as manly as I can." Throttle back on the
testosterone, Bruce. Some believe that his self-deprecating
manner is an act, that any 51-year-old who talks that way with 10
victories in 18 months, $3.9 million in earnings and a game
without a weakness is sandbagging. But Fleisher seems to fight a
genuine crisis of confidence, a diagnosis backed up by his wife,
Wendy, who described Fleisher's preround state of mind on Sunday
thusly: "He was a wreck. He was nervous. He was uncertain. He did
not like the feeling he was feeling."
One as sensitive as Fleisher does not forget the years of failure
on the regular Tour, years when he didn't deliver on the promise
he had established as a 19-year-old by winning the 1968 U.S.
Amateur, the promise that led Raymond Floyd to call him "the next
comet." Fleisher instead turned out to be the first Bobby
Clampett, a player who, as he says, "always found a way to throw
up all over myself." Fleisher played in more than 400 Tour events
but won only the '91 New England Classic, a victory that,
predictably, he has classified as "a complete fluke." Even though
Fleisher's Senior career at this early stage is among the best in
history, something in him can't forget that Irwin will go down as
one of the greats and he will be a 50-and-over asterisk. Irwin
won three U.S. Opens, in 1974, '79 and '90. In those years
Fleisher's best performances were, respectively, a second at Quad
Cities, a 30th at the Doral and a 38th in the World Series of
Golf. "You grow up and watch these people, and you get beat up
pretty good for 20-some years," says Wendy. "Then you do beat
them a couple times, but all of a sudden you feel as if you're
going to wake up and it's all going to disappear."
Irwin is the perfect foil, the hard-as-nails defensive back (he
was recently named to Colorado's all-century football team) with
the attack-dog mentality. He and Fleisher are even physical
contrasts. Irwin has a lean, predatory look. Fleisher's physique
suggests a Beverly Hills orthodontist. Irwin threw Fleisher a few
bones early in the week. When Fleisher moved out to a four-stroke
lead after the second round, Irwin tossed a white towel in his
direction and, eyeing the leader's choice of snack, said,
"There's Bruce, eating hot dogs and kicking our butts." Hearing
that a reporter had told Fleisher that on the course he "had all
the personality of wallpaper," Irwin took the writer to task. But
Irwin, being Irwin, was no doubt all the while thinking, This guy
is mine. When Irwin ended Saturday's round only two strokes
behind--Fleisher had missed a four-footer for par at 18--he went
helmet-first for the psyche.
"The difference may be that I've been in this position before,
and this is the first time Bruce has," said Irwin, talking about
their matchup the next day. "I'm sure he's going to be reminded
of that many times. Questions like, How do you feel? What are you
going to do tonight? Those are questions you can't answer until
you've been there."
A few minutes later Fleisher was asked if Irwin might be
employing a bit of gamesmanship. He smiled and said, "What I've
seen this season is a kinder, gentler Hale Irwin." How so? "He
actually talks to me."
The two were chatting amiably as they strolled up the 3rd fairway
on Sunday, by which time Irwin had already won the war. On the
par-5 1st hole Fleisher, perhaps overcompensating to show that he
wasn't afraid or perhaps woozy from a bad night's sleep and a
nervous morning, ill-advisedly hit a three-wood on his second
shot and made bogey from a bunker. "I couldn't believe he played
that shot, but I'm glad he did," said Irwin, who tucked in a
nine-iron to six feet and birdied the hole.
Having made up the two-stroke deficit in 10 eventful minutes,
Irwin turned the remaining 17 holes into a
you-show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine match-play event, and
Fleisher can tell you who had the advantage there. Irwin birdied
number 4 to take the lead, birdied number 5 to go up by two and,
on number 6, dropped a birdie putt on top of Fleisher's. By that
time Fleisher had to be thinking, This guy's a lot more manly
than I am.
Irwin never let up, using his ruler-straight driver to keep his
ball in play, peppering the pins with his irons and striking
putts that were always around the hole. He made six birdies and
nary a bogey during his second consecutive 65, which in the final
round of an Open speaks to composure and experience. Irwin has
now won two Senior Opens and 26 other tour events, a total that
is one off the alltime record held by Lee Trevino. Here's another
stat to chew on: In 120 Senior starts, Irwin has finished in the
top three 61 times.
His back gets creaky from time to time, but at 55 Irwin seems fit
enough and hungry enough to keep winning for years. "There's no
way you can compare my career to that of a Jack Nicklaus, an
Arnold Palmer, a Gary Player or a Tom Watson," said Irwin when
asked to assess his place among the greats. "They've all had
fabulous major-championship careers, which is how we tend to
measure. But I do think my career has been highlighted by
impressive wins on impressive golf courses."
Such as his victory at Saucon. On the final hole of the final
round, Irwin and Fleisher both fired good-looking approaches, but
Irwin's ended up a foot closer to the pin. Anything you can do, I
can do better. While Irwin took in the applause as he approached
the green, Fleisher walked a few feet behind, softly clapping,
too. It was the manly thing to do.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/ALLSPORT HANGIN' BRUCE Normally an excellent front-runner, Fleisher lost his two-stroke lead in the first 10 minutes of the final round.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL ROYAL PAIN The 70-year-old Palmer, despondent after a desultory performance, said it's about time that he called it a career.
Wendy described her husband's preround state of mind thusly: "He
was a wreck. He was nervous. He was uncertain."