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Flesch savors his first taste of Tigermania

A non-winner on tour, the left-hander matches the world's best shot for shot.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Steve Flesch didn't ask for an autograph, but you get the feeling it crossed his mind. Tiger Woods is so big, even millionaire PGA Tour players get caught up in the hype surrounding the world's No. 1 golfer.

For the first time in his three-year career, Flesch had the opportunity to play with Woods on Saturday during the third round of the National Car Rental Golf Classic.

"The things he's done in my three years on tour have been fun to watch," Flesch said. "And just to see it up close -- you can watch him hit balls on the range and watch him hit drivers 300 yards, but until you're standing out there right with him, watching it, it's not the same. So the whole experience was great.

"The patience and everything he shows with everything going on around him is great. I commend him for how well he handles it. For a lot of people, it could get to them. But I had a blast out there."

Flesch learned firsthand what it's like to play in Tiger's world. Fans screaming, spectators shuffling to the next hole before you're done playing, a big crowd on every hole.

But he hardly seemed unnerved by the experience. Despite all the distractions, Flesch, 33, matched Woods stroke for stroke, shooting 6-under-par 66 to maintain a two-stroke advantage heading into today's final round.

In fact, for each of Woods' first five birdies in the round, Flesch managed to birdie the same hole or the next one. After Woods tied Flesch with birdie at the eighth hole, Flesch birdied three of the next four to lead by three.

Woods had to birdie the 18th hole with a 10-footer for his 66 to cut the lead to two.

Another day like that and Flesch will post his first PGA Tour victory while denying Woods his 10th of the year and 25th overall.

"Even though I'm leading by two, I know I'm not the favorite," said Flesch, who has 12 top-10 finishes this year.

Flesch completed 54 holes at 194, 22 under par. Woods was at 196, followed by Jeff Sluman, who shot 67-199. Bob May (66), Glen Day (66) and Duffy Waldorf (69) were tied for seventh at 200.

With the closest pursuer other than Woods five strokes back, it appears Flesch would need to only beat Woods today to claim his first title.

"Playing with Tiger for the first time, he held his head up," Sluman said of Flesch. "Obviously he didn't get run over. But it's a 72-hole tournament, not a 54-hole tournament. I can guarantee Tiger is going to come out and probably birdie three of the first five, if not better. He will do something like that just to squeeze Steve a little bit and see how he reacts."

Woods was unable to apply that pressure Saturday. He continually drove it past Flesch, only to see the left-hander stick his iron shots close to the pin. That forced Woods to respond, and although he often did, Flesch made his share of putts. He needed just 23 for the round.

"Overall, he played real well," Woods said. "His putts didn't lip in. They went right in the middle with nice pace."

Woods didn't exactly play poorly. He hit all 18 greens in regulation and has not made bogey in the tournament. Woods has played 105 straight stroke-play holes without bogey and has 42 consecutive rounds at par or better. It was his 44th round in the 60s this year.

And yet

"There is no flow," Woods said. "I'm grinding. It needs work, but it is close enough to where I can hit solid shots. I have gotten better each day I have played competitively since I have taken my (five-week) break. That is what you want to see and that is what you want to happen when you have big tournaments coming up."

Flesch saw things a bit differently.

"I wanted to see how he's playing out there," he said. "What he does to make him so good. It's easy to see. That 66 he shot was a low-stress 66."

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