2003: Champions Tour - Fleisher’s game takes ‘Flash vs. Flame’
It’s not Ali vs. Frazier. The truth is, it’s not even a green-grass version of McEnroe vs. Connors, but in the serene world of over-50 golf Hale Irwin vs. Bruce Fleisher is a rivalry worthy of the hype.
Call it Flash vs. Flame, if you like. The unassuming journeyman, mano-a-mano, against the senior circuit’s version of the 300-pound guerrilla. After a promising start, time – and Fleisher’s fading performance – appeared to have shelved this once-flourishing rivalry. That is, until fate and Mother Nature combined Feb. 23 at the Verizon Classic.
From the onset, it didn’t appear to be a fair fight. Fleisher conceded his confidence was not what it once was, and to make things worse, he finished his weather-delayed second round early Sunday with a ghastly double bogey, giving Irwin a one-shot lead heading to the final 18 holes.
The real demon, however, was his opponent. Simply put, the idea of squaring off with Irwin pummels Fleisher’s psyche like Mike Tyson drubs no-name challengers.
“When you beat Hale, it’s a little more satisfying,” said Fleisher, who closed with 67 for an 8-under-par 205 total. “He just doesn’t make mistakes . . . well, today he made some.”
Irwin made only one real miscue Sunday – a three-putt from 20 feet on No. 17 that produced a two-shot swing and renewed what perhaps has become the Champions Tour’s most inspiring rivalry.
“The truth is, I’d lost some confidence,” said Fleisher, who opened the season with a tie for seventh in Hawaii but hadn’t been in the top 24 in his last two starts.
Fleisher’s see-saw shootout with Irwin at the TPC of Tampa Bay should fill any self-esteem deficiencies. At least until their next meeting.
“He didn’t leave the door open very much at all,” said Irwin, who shot 69 for a 7 under total. “When he did I couldn’t get through the crack.”
To be more precise, Irwin couldn’t putt through the crack. For the week, the 57-year-old needed 85 putts, tying him for 14th in the field, and none of those putts was more crucial than his 5-foot come-backer for par at No. 17.
“An absolute killer,” he said of the miss that cost him his first title of 2003.
For Fleisher, this marks the second time he has hoisted the Verizon trophy. It was his fifth top-3 finish in five starts at this event. That’s 41 under par through 15 rounds at a course that statistically ranks as one of the toughest on tour each year.
“Coming over here, a course I played well, you can dig deep down and remember,” Fleisher said.
His victory also may help him remember 1999, his rookie season when he unseated Irwin as the tour’s top money leader. Since then, Irwin has re-established his dominance, winning four times last year and claiming his third money title. But after Sunday’s showdown, an Irwin-Fleisher rivalry in 2003 could be inevitable.
“He’s kind of a warrior,” Fleisher said of Irwin.
It appears Fleisher has a little warrior in him as well. He just needed a confidence boost to remind him.