Bruce Fleisher has always had style. There were the distinctive—O.K., wild—outfits that he wore on Tour during the '70s that earned him the nickname Flash. His top-gun, killer getup featured bell-bottom slacks with red, white and blue stripes, a wide white belt and, of course, white shoes. "He was hot," says Fleisher's wife, Wendy. "Or so we thought."
Fleisher was already stylin' in 1969, when he played in the Masters as the U.S. Amateur champ. He was a sandy-haired 20-year-old junior college student and was paired with Arnold Palmer in the first round. Fleisher, who on the opening hole dared to blow his tee shot 30 yards past the King's, shot a bold 69 to beat Palmer by four strokes. "Not only did he outplay Arnold," gushed SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which compared Fleisher to Joe Namath, "he honest-to-gosh outsexed him, too." The 6'3" Fleisher wore tight-fitting slacks, tucked a tee behind one ear, wrapped white tape around his wrist (he thought it made him look tough) and always wore a smile—think of a '60s version of Matt Kuchar. A gaggle of girls gathered at Augusta National's 16th hole, where, as the players approached the green, they waited for the gallery's applause to die before springing into action. "They chanted, 'We love Brucie baby, we love Brucie baby,' " Fleisher recalls. "It was kind of neat, but one day Billy Casper couldn't putt because he was laughing so hard." A fan club, Brucie's Babies, was born.
Fleisher, now 50, has also exploded onto the somnambulant Senior tour scene with style. Until Fleisher went wire to wire while winning the Royal Caribbean Classic two weeks ago, only George Archer, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player had won their first event as a Senior. Last week Fleisher trekked to where no Senior had gone before, winning his second straight with a three-shot victory over Larry Nelson in the American Express Invitational in Sarasota, Fla. "That's a hell of a note—me replacing four of the greatest golfers in the world," Fleisher said on Sunday evening. "They can make that my epitaph. Really, though, I think records like that are immaterial. I shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as those guys."
Two Senior tournaments, two wins, twice as many as Fleisher had during a regular Tour career that spanned 28 years. His only victory came when he was 42, at the 1991 New England Classic. He holed an unlikely 50-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole of a playoff to beat Ian Baker-Finch, who numbly said, "That's just amazing." Stung, Baker-Finch rushed to the airport to catch a nine o'clock flight to England and Royal Birkdale, where the next week he won the British Open.
Fleisher's '91 victory, hard-earned but "just a fluke," he says, prolonged his career. For the next three years he did well enough to reach, for the first time, the promised land of pro golf—the Tour's exempt list. Remaining competitive so late in his career also helped prepare him for what he so suddenly became on Sunday: the king of the hill on the Senior tour. Move over, Hale. Look out, Gil.
Besides Fleisher, another Senior rookie, Jim Thorpe, has tied for fifth and sixth, respectively, in his first two starts, which has everyone wondering if a changing of the guard is taking place. Hale Irwin, 53, and 52-year-old Gil Morgan dominated the Senior circuit with a combined 28 victories over the last two seasons. Is their window of opportunity starting to close? " Hale Irwin better get all the money he can, because when Tom Kite, Tom Watson and Lanny Wadkins come out [late in the year], it's going to be a different story," says Chi Chi Rodriguez, who finished 31st in his first start since suffering a heart attack in October.
Nelson, the winner of three majors, also believes the dynasty days are over. "It's going to be much harder for anybody to have the kind of years that Hale and Gil have had," he says. "It will be much more difficult for guys to win a million dollars. I don't see anybody having a season [like Irwin did in '98, when he won more than $2.8 million] in the next five years because the competition is getting better."
In the form of Fleisher, whose swing is unremarkable but whose tempo is terrific, the competition already is better. In Sarasota, Fleisher enjoyed a four-shot cushion throughout most of the final round. In his first week out he won despite being ranked only 57th in putting. So far, the Senior tour is a one-man show. "It looks like Fleisher is the guy to beat—in Florida, anyway," says Dana Quigley. "It's pretty incredible what he's done. It might even force Hale and Gil to the practice tee. I guarantee they aren't going to like anyone beating them like that. Of course, Bruce will probably come down to earth somewhere along the line."
Down to earth is Fleisher's life story. His family moved often when he was growing up, and he left home, in Greenville, S.C., for good when he was 17 Six months later, in 1967, he enrolled at Furman but dropped out and moved to Miami, where he got a job parking cars until Guy Childers, the coach at Miami-Dade Junior College, spotted him hitting balls barefoot at a range and offered him a scholarship.
He was 19 when he won the U.S. Amateur, in 1968, and the next year he was the low amateur at the Masters, finishing 44th. Poised for a run at stardom, Fleisher instead failed to make it through Q school in 1970, losing in a five-for-one playoff. "There was no Nike tour or anything back then," he says. "Basically, you were a man with no home. Having to sit out that year hurt me mentally. I lost a lot of confidence. Very few guys can look in a mirror and say, 'I'm good,' and believe it. You get beat up a lot in this game."