A Cut Above Better known for his slice than for his play in the majors, Bruce Lietzke was nonetheless a perfect Senior Open champ

July 06, 2003

Rosemarie Lietzke had heard enough. Sitting with her 17-year-old
daughter, Christine, in the den of their Dallas-area home last
Saturday, Rosemarie was watching her husband, Bruce, storm to a
four-shot lead in the third round of the U.S. Senior Open at
Inverness Club, in Toledo. He had dropped putt after putt, making
six birdies on the last 10 holes to shoot a blistering
seven-under 64. It was, Lietzke later confirmed, the best round
of his life. So when NBC announcer Johnny Miller implied that
Lietzke--an avowed family man who has famously spent the last 15
summers doing everything a golfing father of two should do except
live and die for the major championships--didn't deserve to win
the Senior Open because he'd never made the majors a priority,
Rosemarie was stunned. "It bothered me that someone would say he
doesn't care about the majors," she said. "Of course he does. He
cares about his family, too. To hear things like, If he'd
practiced more, he could've been.... Well, he's who he wants to
be." She had already decided to fly to Toledo the next morning to
be with Bruce if he won, and now there was another reason to go.
She "wouldn't have to hear Johnny Miller bad-mouth my husband
anymore."

On Sunday, Lietzke shot a gritty 73 for a seven-under 277 and a
two-stroke victory over Tom Watson, the gallery favorite. Lietzke
also gained a measure of respect from those who see him as more
of a squanderer of talent than a person of principle. "My
satisfaction has always come from the love of my family," Lietzke
said hours after winning his first major title in 53 tries.
"That's been more than enough for me. I've always preferred to
fly below the radar. On the way home I'll allow myself a little
pat on the back, but golf stopped being the end-all for me long
ago. Maybe people don't understand that my pride comes from my
wife and my kids. They keep me playing."

Lietzke's victory was a fitting coda for a week long on
perspective. The relative unimportance of a shanked iron shot or
a clutch par save pervaded the championship. Hubert Green, who
came in 30th, was making his last start before beginning
radiation treatment for tongue and throat cancer. Vicente
Fernandez of Argentina, the second-round leader who also shot a
64, on Friday, and who eventually finished third, was fighting
through a dreadful 12 months. Three relatives (including his
mother) and a former coach had died, and he was financially
strapped by his nation's economic collapse. Also, his caddie,
Brian Deasy, had been sidelined by non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Then
there was Watson, whose 66 on Thursday thrilled the crowd, as his
opening-day 65 had done two weeks earlier at the U.S. Open, and
once again focused attention on his longtime caddie, Bruce
Edwards, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or
Lou Gehrig's disease).

By the championship's end the emotional weight these players
carried made the golf seem almost secondary, an escape that at
the same time mattered little and meant everything. In Lietzke,
then, this Senior Open had a fitting champion. For the first
eight years of a PGA Tour career that began in 1975, Lietzke was
consumed by tournament wins (13), major championships and Ryder
Cup teams (1981). "But I knew once I was married [in 1981] and
had a family, [the single-mindedness] would come to an end," he
says. "My children were born in '83 [Stephen] and '85
[Christine], and my priorities changed. My last British Open was
1982. My last U.S. Open was '85. I was going to be a Little
League coach. I didn't believe dragging kids around motel rooms
for a summer was how they wanted to live. It wasn't how I wanted
to live."

Lietzke played a limited schedule, relying on the same swing and
equipment he has used for three decades. "I haven't confused my
muscles by working on a radical set of irons or a 48-inch
driver," he says. "The specs on my clubs are exactly as they've
always been, so you can take time off and the first swing you
make in two months will be that exact same swing."

Though he had won seven times on the Champions tour since turning
50 in July 2001, Lietzke says he only discovered last week that
the Senior Open isn't a Champions tour event. Translation: His
preferred grip-it-and-rip-it style wasn't going to fly at
Inverness, where the fairways were much tighter than those at
most Senior venues. One of the tour's longest hitters, Lietzke
hardly used the best club in his bag. Unable to remember a round
in which he had hit driver fewer than eight times, Lietzke pulled
it out a total of 10 times in four rounds at Inverness. Using
three-woods and three-irons off the tee, Lietzke's drives were
average at best, abysmal at worst. He hit only 12 of 30 fairways
on the weekend, including seven of 15 on Saturday, during his 64.

"This was a tournament I won with my putter," he said on Sunday
evening. "Today I won basically because of two hooked shots, and
that's a word I didn't think I'd say in public." (Lietzke is so
dependent on left-to-right ball flight that the other players
call him Leaky.) Overall, Lietzke's 107 putts tied for fewest in
the field, but it was those two unlikely draws that turned heads.
The first came on the par-5 8th, where his drive settled in the
left rough 205 yards from the hole. Overhanging limbs precluded a
fade, so Lietzke drew a five-iron around the trees, his ball
stopping eight feet from the hole. When he dropped the eagle putt
and Watson three-putted from 10 feet, Lietzke's lead swelled to
six strokes.

The second draw came at the par-4 14th, at which point his lead
over Watson had been cut to three. Lietzke drove into the right
rough, behind a row of trees blocking his approach to the green.
As Lietzke passed NBC reporter Roger Maltbie, he heard Maltbie
say that Lietzke's only shot was a low cut under the trees.
Lietzke, though, saw a hole in the trees to his right and thought
to himself, Roger is thinking either I won't try a hook or I
can't hit a hook. Beware the Lietzke motivated by a talking head.
He drew his ball through the opening, leaving a chip and a putt
for par.

Lietzke's best was barely enough to beat Watson, who performed
with a grace and resolve that masked a heavy heart. Edwards's
fight against ALS is the talk of golf, in part because of the
fund-raising efforts of Watson. Truth is, the caddie's physical
deterioration--slurred speech, exhaustion, weight loss--has
affected Watson more than he had imagined it would. "It's made
life more somber, more complicated, more uncertain and less
fulfilling," Watson said on Saturday night. "I can divorce it
when I'm on the course, but off the course it's very hard. The
prognosis is terrible, and though he's been on five different
[drug] protocols, nothing's changed. Bruce has been great. He'll
make fun of himself, say that he can't order a drink anymore
because they hear him speak and think he's had too many, but he
never complains."

Watson remains the private, even-keeled man he's always been, but
the outpouring of support for him and his caddie was so powerful,
so inescapable, that it probably lifted his play, if for only a
day. In the opening round, during which he drained four putts
from more than 25 feet, Watson said he "turned a 71 into a 66."
From then on, though, so-so iron play ruined a wonderful week off
the tee. He hit 78% of the fairways, second only to Wayne Levi.
Though his greens-in-regulation percentage was also strong (69%),
it was deceptive. Too often his first putt was from more than 20
feet, and in the final three rounds Watson made only an eagle and
two birdies. "My machine was stuck in the sand," he said, "and
[Lietzke's] was pointed downhill."

In the end the pro-Watson-and-Edwards crowd finally gave it up
for the new champion, who swept Rosemarie into his arms and
kissed her lovingly. After the trophy ceremony Lietzke signed so
many autographs that at one point he looked up and said he wished
he had a shorter name. "But I shouldn't complain," he quickly
added.

How can a guy gripe when he has the best of both worlds?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH [COVER INSET] Bruce Almighty Bruce Lietzke Rules at the U.S. Senior Open G6 HELL-BENT Lietzke missed the most fairways but had the fewest putts of and Senior Open winner. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH HAPPY ENDING Lietzke was good enough on Sunday to win his first major in 53 tries and get a kiss from Rosemarie. COLOR PHOTO: MARK DUNCAN/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH TIME TO RIDE Watson decided the Open was the last event in which he'd allow Edwards to walk.

Watson said his caddie's ALS makes life "more somber, more
complicated, more uncertain and less fulfilling."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)