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Hitting his stride, 30 years later

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

LUTZ -- The sheriff's deputy was shouting at the crowd, trying to clear a path for the golfer on his way to the first tee.

"Come on, come on," Bruce Fleisher said, walking behind the deputy. "Make way for the star."

This is one of the perks of being Bruce Fleisher:

You can make fun of the real stars.

Heaven knows, he's got it coming. The man has put in better than 30 years on the fringes of golfing celebrity. Always near, but never among the stars.

You might remember him as the next Nicklaus. You know, that's what they were calling him in 1968 when he won the U.S. Amateur as a teenager. Turns out, the next Nicklaus would be working as a club pro 20 years later.

Or you might recall him from the 408 events he played on the PGA Tour. Of course, he finished somewhere shy of the prize in 407 of those tournaments.

Maybe you just know him as the guy who finally found himself on the other side of 50. A player among the leading winners on the senior tour for four years who draws less attention than guys with higher scores and bigger names.

He won again over the weekend at the Verizon Classic. Did it in typical Fleisher fashion. Showed early promise, fouled it up, then hung around long enough to outlast the bigger star.

"He's had a very nice career. It's changed his whole life," Jack Nicklaus said. "It's been wonderful."

There is much to admire about the 54-year-old Fleisher. Oh, not the millions he's earned the past few years, or the U.S. Senior Open he won in 2001.

It's more the way he has persevered. The way he refused to allow the disappointment of younger days overcome the rest of his career.

Mostly, it's the perspective he has earned along the way.

Fleisher told a story after Sunday's final round. A story that made you laugh at him and admire him at the same time.

It seems he was playing a practice round with Ben Crenshaw in Chicago last year. As they approached the 10th tee, they came upon a couple of elderly men excited about an encounter with a two-time Masters champion like Crenshaw.

"They said, 'Wow, there's Ben Crenshaw, what a great career he had. And there's Fleisher. Boy what a (crummy) player he was,' " Fleisher said. "I went over and said, 'Fellas, you're right. There's a superstar. I'm just pretty fortunate to come out here and do well.'

"But I never really felt like I failed. I was fully vested, 20-some years. Been around the world two or three times. Met kings and queens. I never considered myself a failure. There are very few superstars. Whether it's Crenshaw or Fuzzy Zoeller or (Tom) Kite or (Tom) Watson.

"I said, 'It's guys like me who make the Ben Crenshaws of the world. They need guys like me to beat up on.' "

That's the thing about Fleisher. He's beat up on himself more than anyone ever could. He may have had similar talent to the great ones, but he never had the fire in his belly that made Nicklaus or Hale Irwin who they are.

Fleisher never had the confidence or the arrogance that sets stars apart when the moment is crucial and the shot is necessary.

In a way, that may explain his success on the senior tour. Expectations have faded. Pressure has lessened. It's just him and the course.

In another time, in another era, the way Sunday began might have crushed Fleisher.

Nasty weather had caused the suspension of the second round Saturday with Fleisher leading Irwin by one stroke and facing a 3--foot putt for par on 16. When play resumed Sunday morning, Fleisher missed the putt. Three feet from the cup and he already had blown his lead.

By the time he double bogeyed No. 18, Irwin had a one stroke lead.

Fleisher would have three hours or so to stew before beginning the third round. Three hours to wonder about the misfortune of Saturday's rain. Three hours to ponder the strokes he had essentially handed Irwin.

How did Fleisher spend that time?

Singing oldies.

His daughter Jessica had a toothache, so he got in the car with her and her husband and went in search of a Walgreens.

"We've got this little harmony thing going. No matter what song it is, my dad thinks he can harmonize with it. It's kind of a family joke. My mom used to be a professional singer, but my dad's terrible," Jessica said. "I don't know what we were listening to, some awful oldies station, but he loved it. He was singing and laughing.

"I think it was just good for him to get away from here. Everybody wanted to talk about golf, golf, golf. Instead, we went driving and talked about my school and everything else besides golf. We just left the bad stuff behind."

By the time Fleisher returned with his police escort at the first tee, the morning misery was behind him. He sank birdies on four of the first seven holes to retake the lead. Even after losing the lead on the back nine, Fleisher outplayed Irwin on the final two greens to win.

"His play out here has been exemplary compared to the other tour," Irwin said. "I don't know why that is."

The answer may be impossible to pin down. It isn't just talent. It isn't just confidence. It isn't just attitude. It's all those things, and maybe some others, too.

The bottom line is that, 30 years later, Fleisher has become the player everyone thought he should be.

Make way for the star.

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