Too many times in his PGA Tour career, Steve Flesch has found reasons why he can’t get the job done on Sunday. At the HP Classic of New Orleans May 4, the promising left-hander from Kentucky refused to let himself slip into such a negative frame of mind. Though he started the final round seven shots behind leader Scott Verplank, from the moment Flesch walked outside his hotel to find winds blowing as high as 20 mph to the last putt he stood over several hours later, he believed he could win.
And now, after 174 starts, he has the trophy to prove he can.
Flesch pulled off a little Bayou magic, accomplishing the improbable by rolling in a 35-foot birdie putt on one of the toughest holes on Tour – the 471-yard, par-4 18th at English Turn Golf & Country Club – to edge Bob Estes and collect his long-awaited maiden victory. Flesch, who has had a rough time closing tournaments in the past – he ranked 168th in final-round scoring average in 2002 – shot a final-round,
7-under 65 to catch the leaders. When he walked up to the 18th green in his playoff, even though he was a long way from the hole, he was confident he could make 3.
“I remember reading the putt, but I don’t even remember what I read,” said Flesch, previously a two-time runner-up in New Orleans.
“I just knew I was going to make it.”
Flesch and Estes finished regulation at 21-under 267, one shot off David Toms’ tournament mark at English Turn. Third-round leader Verplank, who had control of the tournament from mid-morning Friday when he shot a second-round 63, to late on Sunday afternoon, faltered down the stretch, shooting 39 on his inward nine to finish third.
Verplank and Estes, however, have experienced victory on Tour before. Flesch, who turns 36 this month, has been eager to savor such a taste.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said the six-year Tour veteran, who had his
fidgety 4-year-old son, Griffin, sitting in his lap. “My biggest battle is always just hanging in there long enough. I’m always trying my butt off, but sometimes I just think that there is no way I can win. Today, for some reason, I just knew from the first hole.”
Verplank led by five early and held a two-stroke lead with four holes to play, but bogeyed 16 and double-bogeyed 18 to shoot 2-over 74, slipping to 19 under. After making only two bogeys in his first
57 holes, Verplank made three bogeys and a double over his last 15.
“I just played bad. I don’t know what else to say,” said Verplank. “I had plenty of opportunities to get a little distance and I didn’t make the putts.”
Flesch joined Mike Weir as the only left-handers to win on Tour this year. Weir has won three times, including the Masters.
Estes and Flesch hit solid tee shots to start the playoff at No. 18, a hole that had yielded only two birdies to Sunday’s field. Both reached the green comfortably in two. Flesch’s ball was just a few feet from Estes’ and about 5 feet farther from the hole. The winning putt rolled steady, straight and fast, and when it dropped Flesch leaped into the air and pumped his fist over his head, taking a victory lap.
“Fifteen feet from the hole, it got over that ridge . . . I knew it was in,” he said.
Estes never thought he would have to make birdie to stay alive. “But it was just the perfect putt,” he said of Flesch’s final stroke, “and I just didn’t get mine high enough, so it never had a chance.”
His chance to extend the playoff missed left and Flesch owned the $900,000 prize. Estes’ playoff record dropped to 0-3.
Flesch moved into a share of the lead while trying to keep warm on the practice range. He said he was listening to radio coverage of the tournament. “I didn’t want to watch it, but listening was worse,” he said.
Verplank, who struggled to hit greens and fairways all day, made his third bogey of the round on 16 to fall to 21 under. Meanwhile, Estes birdied the hole from 4 feet to create a three-way tie for the lead.
Verplank completed his collapse with an ugly double-bogey at No. 18 that started in a fairway bunker and included a shot that sailed into the right sky boxes. Estes forced the playoff with a hard-earned par, getting up-and-down from the front of the left bunker. Rookie Mark Wilson played his best tournament of the season as a second consecutive 69 left him alone in fourth at 270.
The stiff winds that normally protect the wide fairways of English Turn finally made an
appearance Sunday, after the golfers had their way for three days. It showed in the final-round scores for almost everyone but Flesch, who has three second-place finishes, including here in 1998 and 1999. He played his final 56 holes without a bogey.
By nightfall, he was in a new category – PGA Tour champion – and liking the sound of it.
“This game can beat you up, and I’ll tell you what, I’m a professional at beating myself up,” Flesch said.
“. . . The fact is, I’ve come out on the wrong end of it a little bit like Scott did today. That’s why I think the guys out here on Tour are so good because, you know what, we can’t stand to lose. Unfortunately there is 155 losers a week, but that’s what drives us to play. And believe me, it’s no fun to get your brains beat in week in and week out. I feel fortunate, but I feel like, man, I’ve paid my dues long enough.”
– Staff and wire reports