Back of the Class of '99
Bruce Fleisher has two wins and a second. Jim Thorpe has ties for fifth and sixth. Yet the most endearing, if not enduring, member of the Senior tour's rookie class is Alberto Giannone of Argentina, who has failed to crack the top 50 in three tournaments this season.
"I had never heard of him. Nobody had ever heard of him," says Greenwich, Conn., agent Rod Armstrong, who nonetheless agreed to represent Giannone as a favor to another Argentine client, Vicente Fernandez. "I first met Alberto at Q school [at Grenelefe Golf Resort in Haines City, Fla., in December], and he's this little person [5'8", 150 pounds]. On the 1st tee he pulls out a 52-inch driver and starts taking practice swings. It looks like he's swinging a telephone pole. Then he birdies 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and lips out for birdie on 6. When he birdies 8, he's six under and everybody's looking around saying, 'Who is this guy?' "
Giannone is this season's curiosity du jour on the Senior tour, a man who delivered newspapers and mail to supplement his income from the South American tour, where in 28 years his biggest check was for $2,100. So fierce is Giannone's passion for the game that his nickname is Loco. "Before I play, I'm like a racehorse in the gate," he says, through an interpreter. "I'm always the first one in the lobby in the morning, ready to go."
By coming in third at Grenelefe (one spot behind Fleisher and three ahead of Thorpe), Giannone made $13,000. He said the money would pay his expenses, of which, evidently, there were many. He arrived at Miami International Airport for his first Senior event, the Feb. 5-7 Royal Caribbean Classic, with $11 in his wallet. It barely covered his cab fare to Crandon Park Golf Course in Key Biscayne, where, with four balls in his bag, he began a practice round by hitting one into the agua. By the 12th hole he was out of balls, and he spent the rest of the day exploring the course.
Giannone's favorite stomping ground is Wal-Mart, a colorful, fun-filled emporium the likes of which he'd never seen. In the Haines City store he bought $18 golf shirts, but he's since scored a clothing contract. "I never thought I'd be out here," he says. "To be able to hit balls next to [Arnold] Palmer is incredible."
Bratton's the Quiet Cowboy
At the Buick Invitational in San Diego two weeks ago, PGA Tour rookie Alan Bratton was introduced on the 1st tee as Alan Bran-ton. At last week's Nissan Open he was Alan Brayton. That's O.K., though. Bratton's used to such indignities. When asked about the paucity of people watching him shoot 67-67 to get within a shot of the lead heading into the third round at Riviera, he said matter-of-factly, "If I were a fan here, I wouldn't be following me either."
Bratton has always been an under-the-radar guy. At the 1995 NCAAs he birdied the last three holes to get Oklahoma State into a sudden-death playoff with Stanford, then birdied the first overtime hole to help win the title for the Cowboys. The media knew just what to do: Interview Cardinal freshman Tiger Woods.
Bratton, who shot 74-70 on the weekend to come in 15th and win $40,670, is still playing stealth golf. Before placing 17th at Q school in November, he had failed to reach the finals for three straight years and played on the Asian tour, where he was paid in cash. He recalls flying home once with $18,000 in hundred dollar bills and jokes that he was lucky that he didn't get held up. Fat chance. Bratton's a blender. When he qualified for L.A. by shooting 66 and then birdieing the first hole of sudden death, most of the attention went to 16-year-old James Oh, whom Bratton had just beaten. The rest went to 13-year-old eighth-grader Henry Liaw, who missed the playoff by 10 shots.