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The Old One-Two Back-to-back wins in his first starts have turned Bruce Fleisher, a nobody on the regular Tour, into a Senior sensation

Feb. 22, 1999
Feb. 22, 1999

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Feb. 22, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

The Old One-Two Back-to-back wins in his first starts have turned Bruce Fleisher, a nobody on the regular Tour, into a Senior sensation

Bruce Fleisher has always had style. There were the
distinctive--O.K., wild--outfits that he wore on Tour during the
'70s that earned him the nickname Flash. His top-gun, killer
getup featured bell-bottom slacks with red, white and blue
stripes, a wide white belt and, of course, white shoes. "He was
hot," says Fleisher's wife, Wendy. "Or so we thought."

This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1999 issue

Fleisher was already stylin' in 1969, when he played in the
Masters as the U.S. Amateur champ. He was a sandy-haired
20-year-old junior college student and was paired with Arnold
Palmer in the first round. Fleisher, who on the opening hole
dared to blow his tee shot 30 yards past the King's, shot a bold
69 to beat Palmer by four strokes. "Not only did he outplay
Arnold," gushed SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which compared Fleisher to
Joe Namath, "he honest-to-gosh outsexed him, too." The 6'3"
Fleisher wore tight-fitting slacks, tucked a tee behind one ear,
wrapped white tape around his wrist (he thought it made him look
tough) and always wore a smile--think of a '60s version of Matt
Kuchar. A gaggle of girls gathered at Augusta National's 16th
hole, where, as the players approached the green, they waited
for the gallery's applause to die before springing into action.
"They chanted, 'We love Brucie baby, we love Brucie baby,'"
Fleisher recalls. "It was kind of neat, but one day Billy Casper
couldn't putt because he was laughing so hard." A fan club,
Brucie's Babies, was born.

Fleisher, now 50, has also exploded onto the somnambulant Senior
tour scene with style. Until Fleisher went wire to wire while
winning the Royal Caribbean Classic two weeks ago, only George
Archer, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player had won
their first event as a Senior. Last week Fleisher trekked to
where no Senior had gone before, winning his second straight
with a three-shot victory over Larry Nelson in the American
Express Invitational in Sarasota, Fla. "That's a hell of a
note--me replacing four of the greatest golfers in the world,"
Fleisher said on Sunday evening. "They can make that my epitaph.
Really, though, I think records like that are immaterial. I
shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as those guys."

Two Senior tournaments, two wins, twice as many as Fleisher had
during a regular Tour career that spanned 28 years. His only
victory came when he was 42, at the 1991 New England Classic. He
holed an unlikely 50-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole of a
playoff to beat Ian Baker-Finch, who numbly said, "That's just
amazing." Stung, Baker-Finch rushed to the airport to catch a
nine o'clock flight to England and Royal Birkdale, where the
next week he won the British Open.

Fleisher's '91 victory, hard-earned but "just a fluke," he says,
prolonged his career. For the next three years he did well
enough to reach, for the first time, the promised land of pro
golf--the Tour's exempt list. Remaining competitive so late in
his career also helped prepare him for what he so suddenly
became on Sunday: the king of the hill on the Senior tour. Move
over, Hale. Look out, Gil.

Besides Fleisher, another Senior rookie, Jim Thorpe, has tied
for fifth and sixth, respectively, in his first starts, which
has everyone wondering if a changing of the guard is taking
place. Hale Irwin, 53, and 52-year-old Gil Morgan dominated the
Senior circuit with a combined 28 victories over the last two
seasons. Is their window of opportunity starting to close? "Hale
Irwin better get all the money he can, because when Tom Kite,
Tom Watson and Lanny Wadkins come out [late in the year], it's
going to be a different story," says Chi Chi Rodriguez, who
finished 31st in his first start since suffering a heart attack
in October.

Nelson, the winner of three majors, also believes the dynasty
days are over. "It's going to be much harder for anybody to have
the kind of years that Hale and Gil have had," he says. "It will
be much more difficult for guys to win a million dollars. I
don't see anybody having a season [like Irwin did in '98, when
he won more than $2.8 million] in the next five years because
the competition is getting better."

In the form of Fleisher, whose swing is unremarkable but whose
tempo is terrific, the competition already is better. In
Sarasota, Fleisher enjoyed a four-shot cushion throughout most
of the final round. In his first week out he won despite being
ranked only 57th in putting. So far, the Senior tour is a
one-man show. "It looks like Fleisher is the guy to beat--in
Florida, anyway," says Dana Quigley. "It's pretty incredible
what he's done. It might even force Hale and Gil to the practice
tee. I guarantee they aren't going to like anyone beating them
like that. Of course, Bruce will probably come down to earth
somewhere along the line."

Down to earth is Fleisher's life story. His family moved often
when he was growing up, and he left home, in Greenville, S.C.,
for good when he was 17. Six months later, in 1967 he enrolled
briefly at Furman but dropped out and moved to Miami, where he
got a job parking cars until Guy Childers, the coach at
Miami-Dade Junior College, spotted him hitting balls barefoot at
a range and offered him a scholarship.

He was 19 when he won the U.S. Amateur, in 1968, becoming the
fourth-youngest champion. He was low amateur at the Masters the
next year, finishing 44th, and poised for a run at stardom. But
he didn't make it through Q school in 1970, losing in a
five-for-one playoff. "There was no Nike tour or anything back
then," he says. "Basically, you were a man with no home. Having
to sit out that year hurt me mentally. I lost a lot of
confidence. Very few guys can look in a mirror and say, "I'm
good," and believe it. You get beat up a lot in this game."

Fleisher finally got his card in the fall of '71, and from 1972
to '82 he was on and off the Tour, twice finishing among the top
100 money winners. (He was 77th in '74 and 64th in '81.)
However, at that time you had to rank among the top 60 to be
fully exempt. Looking back, Fleisher says he probably didn't
practice as diligently as some other players, and he never
turned to a swing coach for help. "I had a lot of god-given
talent, and maybe I took it for granted," he says.

His attitude changed in 1980 when Wendy nearly died giving birth
to the couple's only child, Jessica. Wendy was on life support
for four months. "I was given almost no chance to live, and if I
did live, I was supposed to be a vegetable," she says. Bruce
quit the Tour and became a club pro in Miami. "Golf wasn't my
life anymore; it was my living," he says. "I grew up."

Limiting his play to South Florida PGA section events, Fleisher
became a force. When he won the 1989 Club Pro Championship at
PGA West, in La Quinta, Calif., he finally figured out a couple
of things. One, he had always been more interested in hitting
long tee shots than in keeping the ball in play--until that
week. "That course was the meanest, nastiest thing you'll ever
see," says Fleisher. "There wasn't a hole you dared breathe. I
tried to keep the ball in play. Bob Goalby told me afterward,
'You finally learned how to play the game.'" Two, Fleisher
realized that he may have left the Tour too soon. He chafed at
the club pro's life behind the counter. "We had one member who
wanted me to pick up every golf tee every night on the
range--me," Fleisher says. "I bet he never worked a day in his
life."

In the summer of '91 Fleisher quit his job at Williams Island
Country Club in North Miami Beach and started following the
Hogan tour. He picked up back-to-back third-place finishes in
the Northeast and the following week got into the New England
Classic as the final alternate. Even then Fleisher played only
at his wife's urging. There was a lot of head-scratching after
he opened with a 64. "I've heard the name somewhere,"
Baker-Finch said that night.

"His name is Bruce? He must be from around here," deduced Ted
Schulz, who had won the L.A. Open earlier that season.

They may not have heard of him then, but everyone knows Fleisher
now. Jessica, a freshman at Florida, helped boost his profile
last Saturday when she and a friend stopped in a restaurant in
St. Augustine. "They were someplace that had a big-screen TV,
and all of a sudden, there's Dad on the news," Fleisher says.
"She started screaming, 'That's my dad! That's my dad!' That was
neat." Jessica and her mom walked the course during Sunday's
final round and saw Dad shoot 69 to clinch the victory.

Although Fleisher seems calm, he isn't. He said he didn't feel
comfortable coming down the stretch in either of his victories.
That's something that has held him back in the past. "You can't
choke unless you're in position to choke," he says. "In all the
years I've played, I've probably had only about 20 top 10s. I
need to be in this position more often so I can learn to be
comfortable."

Fleisher looked cool and collected on Sunday as he strode up the
TPC at Prestancia's 15th fairway in what by then was an obvious
victory march. Suddenly five white-haired grandmotherly types
bobbed out of one of the houses that line the fairway, shuffled
to the edge of the yard and applauded loudly. Fleisher waved and
flashed them a smile.

They weren't Brucie's Babies, but even after 30 years, some
things never go out of style.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKESCOLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO BRUCIE BABY The Matt Kuchar of his era, Fleisher won the '68 U.S. Amateur and then set hearts aflutter at the '69 Masters.
"That's a hell of a note--me replacing four of the greatest
golfers in the world," Fleisher said.