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Hale of a win for Fleisher

In a showdown of senior champions, Bruce Fleisher takes advantage of a late mistake by Hale Irwin to win the Verizon.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

LUTZ -- Bruce Fleisher remembers the player he was, the player with so much promise and so little to show for it, the player who would have melted under the glare of Hale Irwin.

With each victory on the Champions Tour, however, those days become buried deeper. On Sunday, Fleisher shoveled a little more dirt on his past.

It was Fleisher who stared down Irwin on Sunday at the TPC of Tampa Bay. And it was Irwin who blinked.

Fleisher captured his second Verizon Classic title with 4-under-par 67 that included a birdie at the 17th hole coupled with a three-putt bogey by Irwin. When Irwin's 13-foot birdie putt at the 18th hung on the lip, Fleisher had his 16th Champions Tour title while denying Irwin his 37th.

"It's hard to believe," said Fleisher, 54, who received $240,000 from the $1.6-million purse. "I think when you beat Hale, it's a little more satisfying than just actually winning. We all know that he's the best out here. ... He just doesn't let up. He doesn't make mistakes.

"He did on 17, which is very rare. And I was able to shake mine in. He opened the door big time."

Fleisher and Irwin provided all the drama on a sun-soaked afternoon with an estimated 40,000 in attendance. They had given themselves a cushion in Saturday's windy conditions and emerged as the only players with a chance to win.

And it was fitting, as the two have become rivals on what used to be called the Senior PGA Tour. Fleisher won the money title in 1999 and never has finished lower than third. Irwin, who at 57 became the oldest to lead the money list last year, finished second to Fleisher in 1999 and third the following two years. Several times, they have battled down the stretch at tournaments, including the 2000 U.S. Senior Open, which Irwin won.

For a time, it appeared Irwin would do so again. Irwin, the Champions Tour's all-time victory leader who battled a balky putter all week, finally got birdie putts to drop on the back nine at the 12th, 14th and 15th holes, giving himself a one-stroke lead.

Then, uncharacteristically, he gave it back with his three-putt bogey from 20 feet at the 17th.

"For me the story comes down to a very poor week of putting," Irwin said. "When you're coming down the stretch, you like to have that putter working. You don't have to work quite as hard."

Irwin still had a chance at No. 18 after he hit his 5-iron approach to 13 feet. Fleisher had missed his birdie putt to put the tournament away, meaning Irwin could send it to a sudden-death playoff. But his putt, again, would not drop.

"I could not believe that putt didn't move," Irwin said. "In situations you try to learn something, but I don't know what I learned from that putt. I'd go back and probably do the same thing."

Irwin settled for 69, three rounds in the 60s. But he was one shot more than Fleisher, who finished at 206, 8 under par. Mike Hill, 64, who won the tournament in 1990 when it was played at Tampa Palms, shot a final-round 66 to finish third, four shots back. Mike McCullough, who led after the first round, shot 70 to tie for fourth with Mark McCumber (68) and Jim Thorpe (68).

Fleisher has played 14 of 15 rounds at the TPC of Tampa Bay in par or better and has not finished worse than third in five appearances. He won the 2000 tournament.

"I enjoy this place, I've had such success," said Fleisher, who never has been worse than fourth place after any round he's played in the tournament over five years. "I really don't understand why."

Fleisher, however, wasn't feeling so good about it early Sunday morning after he dumped his approach into the water at the 18th green and made double-bogey 6. Fleisher and Irwin were among 16 players who had to finish the third round that was suspended Saturday due to weather.

They were greeted by chilly conditions, and Fleisher's gaffe at the 18th left him a shot behind Irwin heading into the final round.

While Irwin struggled on the greens, Fleisher built a two-stroke lead through seven holes. He maintained it through 12 holes, when Irwin went on his birdie run to move a stroke ahead.

Fleisher then made an excellent par save at the 16th, holing a 12-foot putt, setting up the drastic change at No. 17.

"Hale's kind of a warrior," Fleisher said. "He only thinks about winning. ... Maybe he got a little aggressive. Maybe he wanted to put me away."

Perhaps in another time, that would have happened. Fleisher's PGA Tour career spanned 26 seasons and netted one victory. A one-time phenom, Fleisher won the U.S. Amateur at age 19, then fizzled. While Irwin was winning 20 PGA Tour events and three U.S. Opens, Fleisher left the tour to become a club professional.

"I couldn't handle him then, I couldn't handle him now," Fleisher said. "As for beating Hale Irwin, this guy has won three U.S. Opens. That alone separates him from most everybody who plays this game."

Not on Sunday.

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