2001: Boost in confidence

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By Richard Mudry

Peabody, Mass.

For more years than she can remember, Wendy Fleisher has played head games with her husband.

First along the PGA Tour and now the Senior PGA Tour, the former University of Miami psychology major has tried to make her husband, Bruce, believe in himself as a golfer.

“I say to him, ‘Don’t you realize how good you are?’ ” said Wendy Fleisher July 1, shortly after it finally sunk in to her husband that he had won the 2001 U.S. Senior Open at Salem Country Club.

“He’s needed the help with his confidence,” said Wendy. “I’ve told him we’ve come through life with a lot of things happening to us.”

Wendy nearly died giving birth many years ago and was in a coma in a hospital before recovering fully. Like most couples, there have been other bumps in the road.

Sometimes Wendy Fleisher thought she was Sigmund Freud – without the proverbial couch, of course.

“I deal with demons all golfers deal with – self-image,” said Bruce Fleisher. “I let a lot of stuff affect me and it probably doesn’t help me like the way I think of myself vs. what other people think of me.”

That has made the couple more grateful for the second chance the Senior PGA Tour has given them. Fleisher, the golfer, now has won 14 times.

He has secured his financial future with more than $6 million in earnings since 1999.

He has won a senior major one year after losing the 54-hole lead at Saucon Valley in Bethlehem, Pa., and finishing second. He has joined Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as one of the only three golfers to win both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Senior Open.

“The Senior Tour came along at a time in my life to give me a second chance,” said Fleisher, whose only PGA Tour victory was at Pleasant Valley Country Club (1991) not far from here. “These are nice memories to have. I think I’ll take away from this that I will start believing in myself.”

Now Fleisher may indeed believe because he won at Salem Country Club, breaking away from a five-way tie with Nicklaus, Gil Morgan, Isao Aoki and Jim Colbert. Fleisher shot a 2-under-par 68 in a round that finished with 12 consecutive pars over the 6,709-yard, par-70 Donald Ross-designed layout. His even-par 280 total was one stroke better than Morgan and Aoki.

Do you believe now, Bruce Fleisher?

“It has been a long time coming,” said Fleisher, a 52-year-old from Ballen Isles, Fla., of his victory and $430,000 winner’s check, his eyes tearing up and his voice cracking from the emotion.

“I feel very fortunate, very lucky. Last year was disappointing. I got beat by a better player (Hale Irwin). But to have four guys at even par with four holes left and only one hangs on, doesn’t that surprise you, given the difficulty of the golf course?”

The answer for the 156-player field would be an unequivocal, “Yes.”

But the daily field scoring average left little doubt that the high rough and the bowled greens - slower than expected to allow for more pin positions - would be trouble.

Overall, the course played to an average of 75.014 strokes for the week.

Yet the week began on an upswing for Fleisher as he shot 69 to take the first-round lead. And while he wasn’t playing as well as he’d have liked, omens were evident from the start.

“There’s a lot of good karma in the Boston, Mass., area,” said Fleisher. “1991 was my moment in time and it put me in a position where I never looked back. The Pleasant Valley win. It was seven sudden-death holes against Ian Baker-Finch. I had just gotten back on Tour.”

Fleisher left the Tour between 1984-91 to take a club pro job, preferring the security of a weekly paycheck and the stability of a home life.

Then there was the Donald Ross angle.

In 1960, Fleisher, then a youngster, won the Donald Ross Invitational in his age group, shooting a 78 on Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 5.

“(Way back then) I had a dream. I had a mission,” said Fleisher. “I don’t know why things happen in life, but I’ve been able to have my dream.”

With all that “karma” tucked onto his golf résumé, Fleisher opened the event with the only under-par score and led Morgan and Frank Conner by one stroke.

A second-round 71, which broke a streak of five consecutive sub-par U.S. Senior Open rounds, left him a shot behind Aoki, who managed 68 after an opening 71.

As conditions became harder and temperatures reached the low 90s with humidity to match, it began to take a toll on the field. Aoki’s 69 and 54-hole total of 208 left him one ahead of Colbert (75-67-67) and Larry Nelson (74-67-68). Fleisher was among four players four shots back in a round suspended by violent weather and finished July 1.

All that meant a final-round shootout and it was just that as gunslinger after gunslinger bit the bullet.

Fleisher finished first, three groups from the end with a steady, if unspectacular, 68. Morgan bogeyed the last hole to fall from a share of the lead next. He shot 70.

Aoki bogeyed the 17th hole to shoot 73 and finish at 1-over 281. Colbert ruined a fine day with a bogey-par-double bogey finish, a 73 and 282 aggregate that tied him with Nicklaus, who bogeyed three of the last six holes in a round of 70, and Allen Doyle (70).

So distraught were they at the outcome, Colbert, like Morgan, left Salem Country Club without comment.

In the end, maybe, said Wendy Fleisher, all those psychology classes at the Coral Gables, Fla., campus paid off.

“I thought after the first year and what he accomplished,” she said of a seven-win, 1999 season and the Player of the Year honor for her husband, “that a lot of other (good) things would happen, but for whatever reason they didn’t.

“Some people think this is extra for a (golf) career. To us, this has been a wonderful, wonderful thing. I’ve always believed Bruce will be remembered for this (senior) career.”

And now Bruce believes that, too.

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