By BOB HARIG and KEITH NIEBUHR
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2003
LUTZ -- Bruce Fleisher loves the TPC of Tampa Bay. He's won the Verizon Classic twice in five years and never has finished worse than third. He can't wait to come back next year.
If there is a tournament next year.
Verizon is bowing out as a title sponsor after 16 years, putting the event's future in doubt.
"I would think it would be a sad day for Tampa, a sad day for this golf course, this community, if someone doesn't step up to the plate," Fleisher said after his one-stroke victory Sunday over Hale Irwin.
Fleisher was amazed by the size of the crowd, estimated at 40,000 despite parking woes created by Saturday's wet weather.
"You never see spectators like this (on the Champions Tour)," he said. "I don't know where they put the people to park. They stuck it out, they came out. I would be sad to see it leave."
Tournament organizers are searching for a title sponsor or a group of sponsors to keep the event on the 2004 schedule. The Verizon Classic drew 116,000 spectators.
SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES: The group of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Bobby Wadkins easily had the largest following Sunday. Watson and Nicklaus won a combined 26 majors on the PGA Tour and were known for having fierce rivalries. "It's always great to play with Jack," Watson said.
Watson shot 3-under 68 to finish at 1-over 214, tied for 13th. Nicklaus tied for 15th.
"It was wonderful -- very exciting," said 65-year Ted Robbins, a vacationer from New Castle, N.H., of watching Nicklaus and Watson duel Sunday. "It's a real learning experience to see how they hit it."
GOING LOW: Hubert Green followed a second-round 79 with 6-under 65, the low round Sunday. He had five birdies and eagle 2 on the 415-yard par-4 fourth. Green was 7 under for the round heading to the ninth (his 18th because he started on No. 10), but missed a 10-footer for par.
"I hit a bad putt, a bad second shot and a bad chip," Green said. "That's three bad shots -- you're supposed to make bogey. But I did a lot of things right."
The 56-year-old Green, who played at Florida State, was so upset with his performance in the second round, he made a swing change Sunday morning. But he wouldn't specify what the changes were.
"We'll see what happens next week before we talk about how good it is," he said.
NO HOME COOKING: Tampa's Gary Koch struggled in his Verizon Classic debut, placing last after rounds of 73-83-76. Koch turned 50 in November and was playing in his third Champions Tour event. The former University of Florida standout also works as a commentator for NBC. "It's very disappointing," he said. "I didn't do anything well."
BIG SHOT: Mike Hill aced the 145-yard par-3 sixth with a 9-iron, the second in Verizon Classic history and first since Bob Dickson in 1999. It was Hill's first Champions Tour ace and his fifth overall.
ODDS AND ENDS: Mark McCumber's tie for fourth was his best finish on the Champions Tour, which he joined in 2001. He tied for seventh here last year. ... Irwin has six top-10 finishes in six appearances at the Verizon Classic. He also finished second last year. Irwin was the only player to have three rounds in the 60s.