2002: Fleisher looks to shine at Senior Open

Bruce Fleisher’s victory at the 2002 U.S. Senior Open was much more than just another crown to add to an already crowded trophy case. His one-stroke triumph at soggy Salem Country Club was an emotional punctuation mark to a major championship quest that spanned five decades.

The victory, in Fleisher’s words, “had been a long time coming.”

Never mind that Fleisher’s Senior Open triumph improved his Senior PGA Tour tally to 14 titles or, more impressively, placed him on a short list with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only golfers to win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Senior Open. All that mattered was that he had finally removed that major monkey from his back.

“These are nice memories to have. I think I’ll take away from this that I will start believing in myself,” Fleisher said following his victory in Peabody, Mass.

What followed that breakthrough victory, however, has been a little, well, un-Fleisher-like. In 29 events since the 2002 Senior Open, Fleisher has 20 top-10 finishes, including four runner-up showings, but no victories. Hardly a slump by any definition, yet for Fleisher, who has made a habit of cashing winner’s checks since joining the over-50 circuit in 1999, those results are somewhat sub-par.

Fleisher, whose lone PGA Tour victory came at the 1991 New England Classic, added to his mini-slump when he pulled out of the U.S. Open earlier this month. Fleisher withdrew from the U.S. Open after playing a practice round at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, saying he wanted to give his spot to a young, aspiring pro.

The move didn’t sit well with some of his Senior Tour brethren.

“You have certain obligations to the game. You’re representing the U.S. Senior Open. It’s an honor to play,” said Hale Irwin, who missed the cut at Bethpage after rounds of 82-81. “All of us older gentlemen were surprised. It would have been great to see him here. He’s the U.S. Senior Open champion. He can play. I’ve seen him play.”

Instead, Fleisher played the BellSouth Senior Classic in Nashville, Tenn., last week – finishing tied for second, three shots behind champion Gil Morgan – and said he didn’t regret giving up his spot at Bethpage.

“When you have a golf course that’s the longest in the history of the U.S. Open . . . to be a token, I think, is a total joke,” Fleisher said. “I feel the course was unplayable for me. I was willing to give my spot, pass it on to some young aspiring golf pro that earned his position.”

While the brutish Bethpage Black Course may have been a little much for Fleisher, his game always has blossomed on golf’s toughest layouts.

The 53-year-old tied for ninth at The Tradition, the season’s first Senior Tour major, and his tie for sixth June 9 at the Senior PGA Championship is even more impressive considering the week’s scoring average was 73.25, more than three strokes over par at Firestone Country Club.

Early reviews of the 7,005-yard, par-71 (36-35) Caves Valley Golf Course, site of next week’s U.S. Senior Open, indicate the Tom Fazio design should prove an appropriate major championship test – and perhaps a place where Fleisher can shine.

Caves Valley is nearly 300 yards longer than Salem and just 50 yards shy of the longest course in Senior Open history. Add to that 4-inch bluegrass and ryegrass rough and greens that U.S. Golf Association officials say will be rolling at 12 on the Stimpmeter.

“The strong will survive,” said Fleisher, who is looking to become only the third back-to-back winner of the Senior Open. “The (Senior) Open is a different animal. It should be different, it should be hard. You just have to deal with it. You have to overcome that. Be a man about it.”

– From staff and wire reports

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