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Fleisher up for the challenge

Now on par with sport's big names, the senior golfer matches his tournament record from two years ago.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

LUTZ -- The task no longer is so daunting, so inconceivable. In fact, should Bruce Fleisher defeat Tom Kite today at the Verizon Classic, it hardly would be considered an upset. Fleisher now can stand up to major-championship winners, unlike his previous golf life.

A generation or two ago, Fleisher was the phenom who flamed out, while Kite emerged as one of the PGA Tour's all-time greats, winning 19 tournaments, including the 1992 U.S. Open. Fleisher left the tour for a club pro job, before returning and becoming a force on the Senior PGA Tour.

"There's such a fine line, but I was a consistent player, middle of the pack," Fleisher said. "Those guys needed me to beat up on. That's what made them look good, guys like (Kite). Intimidated? Maybe so. Somewhat."

Not anymore.

Playing with Kite for the second day in a row, Fleisher had the low round Saturday, 6-under 65 at the TPC of Tampa Bay, to take a one-stroke advantage into today's final round of the $1.5-million tournament.

Fleisher, 53, will be trying for his 15th career senior victory and second in three years at the Verizon Classic, where he has shot all 11 rounds under par. Kite will be attempting to win for the second time this year and his fifth overall senior title.

"I can't seem to catch up to the lead," said Kite, who won last month's opening tournament in Hawaii. "I'm playing some pretty good golf. I'm obviously pleased with how I'm playing. I think I've got to go a little lower. It's pretty evident."

Fleisher completed 36 holes at 131, 11 under par, matching his tournament record from two years ago. Kite was at 132, followed by former club pro Bruce Summerhays, who shot 68 and was in third place. Doug Tewell (67) was three shots back. First-round co-leaders Dana Quigley and Mike Hill each shot par 71 and were at 135, four behind Fleisher.

With morning rain and cooler temperatures, the TPC of Tampa Bay played nearly a stroke harder at 71.538. Only 20 players broke 70, to 31 in the opening round. Fleisher, however, has made one bogey in 36 holes.

At one time, Fleisher was considered star material. He won the 1968 U.S. Amateur at age 19 and played in the Masters the next year. The first round, he was paired with Arnold Palmer -- and beat him. But the highlights ended there.

Fleisher never won on the PGA Tour until he left to become a club pro in South Florida and came back. He outlasted Ian Baker-Finch -- the week before Baker-Finch won the 1991 British Open -- at the New England Classic. Since joining the Senior PGA Tour in 1999, Fleisher has been almost unstoppable. He began by becoming the first player to win his first two senior starts. He won seven times as a rookie. He has 14 titles, including last summer's U.S. Senior Open.

"He was a heck of a player," Kite, 52, said. "I guess the surprise was he didn't do a little better in his PGA Tour career. The talent was always there. Suddenly, he got a little more comfortable with himself and his golf game. He's able to play some really good golf.

"The crazy thing about it is people mature at different levels. Here we are on the senior tour and some of the guys are playing the best golf now of their life. Bruce, all of a sudden he gets out here and he turns 50 and he's kicking rear. There are a lot of examples of guys like that who didn't play the regular tour."

One of them is Summerhays, 58, a former golf coach at Stanford who spent much of his career as a club professional. He qualified for the Senior PGA Tour in 1994 at the TPC of Tampa Bay and has two senior victories and more than $6-million in earnings.

Neither of his victories came from in front, so Summerhays considers his position good. "I get charged up because it's the TPC of Tampa Bay," he said. "Right away I'm in a good mood to play the golf course. It is a comfort zone."

You could say that Fleisher is much more comfortable, too. He's earned $7.5-million in less than four years on the senior tour. And he's looking forward to taking on Kite, with the field much more level.

"I find it a privilege, really," Fleisher said. "Tom is playing very well. I'm certainly in position, but there are a lot of guys right there, too. It's still anybody's ballgame."

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