Say this for the menu at last week's U.S. Senior Open at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa.: It offered a rather unsurprising entr�e in Hale Irwin, but the appetizers were tempting. There was first-round noise (a four-under 67) from Jack Nicklaus, who predictably faded to 21st, losing Low Legend honors to Tom Watson, who tied for 10th. There was a spirited rally (a 65) last Friday by the horseplayer's favorite, Jim Thorpe, who frequented the off-track betting parlor near the course by night but too few of Saucon's fairways by day and tied for sixth. There was a 65 and two other subpar rounds by the sad-faced slasher, Hubert Green, who couldn't get it going on Sunday and finished fifth, nine strokes behind Irwin. Finally there was the final-round toreador act of Bruce Fleisher, who provided an answer to the question, Can you be the Senior tour's best player if you can't hold a two-stroke lead in the circuit's premier event?
That answer is no. Fleisher, who was on target to become the first wire-to-wire winner in the Senior Open since Simon Hobday in 1994, didn't implode on Sunday, but he didn't do much more than step back and wave a red cape as Irwin charged by, either. Fleisher shot a 70 in the final round, a score that has won many a major but was matched or bettered by 22 players at submissive Saucon on Sunday, and he wound up in second, three strokes behind Irwin.
Irwin's 17-under 267 was the lowest winning score in Senior Open history (three better than Gary Player's total in 1987 at Brook-lawn in Fairfield, Conn.), and there was much stomach-gurgling concern among USGA officials about all the red numbers. They did everything but put the pins in bunkers to toughen Saucon, but a rainstorm before play began and another late Thursday softened the greens, and they remained that way throughout the tournament.
Along with the low scores, the 21st Senior Open will also be remembered for its high emotion, most of it supplied by 70-year-old Arnold Palmer, who again hinted that his competitive days are numbered. Palmer's wife, the former Winnie Walzer, was from nearby Coopersburg, and hardly an hour went by that Arnie didn't see some old friend or acquaintance who reminded him of Winnie, who died last November. A few days before the tournament Palmer broke down when an artist presented him with a portrait of him and Winnie. He desperately wanted to play well (these days that means making the cut), but he bowed out after rounds of 76 and 82. "I'm not going to continue to play the way I am," he said. "I have a few commitments to keep tournamentwise and a couple of exhibitions to play, but it's getting to the end of the line. The game has been good to me, and I don't want to ruin it by pushing it too far. It's a painful way to play."
Painful is one way to describe Fleisher's mental approach to the final round and, in fact, the entire tournament. Even as he conducted a clinic during the first three rounds, knocking down pins and bogeying only four holes, he sounded like a man just happy to be in the esteemed company of Nicklaus, Irwin, Tom Kite and Brian Gaddy. (All right, maybe not Brian Gaddy.) Memo to Fleisher: Dude, you are The Man, or at least you're supposed to be. After a third-round 67 (topped only by Irwin's 65 and 66s by Kite and John Mahaffey) set the stage for a mano a mano duel with Irwin, Fleisher offered these Ali-like predictions: "Hopefully I can make a few putts, play well and have some kind of chance to win" and "I may not play worth a damn, but I'm going to try."
He called Irwin "the man to beat" and talked of trying to go into the final round "as manly as I can." Throttle back on the testosterone, Bruce. Some believe that his self-deprecating manner is an act, that any 51-year-old who talks that way with 10 victories in 18 months, $3.9 million in earnings and a game without a weakness is sandbagging. But Fleisher seems to fight a genuine crisis of confidence, a diagnosis backed up by his wife, Wendy, who described Fleisher's preround state of mind on Sunday thusly: "He was a wreck. He was nervous. He was uncertain. He did not like the feeling he was feeling."
One as sensitive as Fleisher does not forget the years of failure on the regular Tour, years when he didn't deliver on the promise he had established as a 19-year-old by winning the 1968 U.S. Amateur, the promise that led Raymond Floyd to call him "the next comet." Fleisher instead turned out to be the first Bobby Clampett, a player who, as he says, "always found a way to throw up all over myself." Fleisher played in more than 400 Tour events but won only the '91 New England Classic, a victory that, predictably, he has classified as "a complete fluke." Even though Fleisher's Senior career at this early stage is among the best in history, something in him can't forget that Irwin will go down as one of the greats and he will be a 50-and-over asterisk. Irwin won three U.S. Opens, in 1974, '79 and '90. In those years Fleisher's best performances were, respectively, a second at Quad Cities, a 30th at the Doral and a 38th in the World Series of Golf. "You grow up and watch these people, and you get beat up pretty good for 20-some years," says Wendy. "Then you do beat them a couple times, but all of a sudden you feel as if you're going to wake up and it's all going to disappear."
Irwin is the perfect foil, the hard-as-nails defensive back (he was recently named to Colorado's all-century football team) with the attack-dog mentality. He and Fleisher are even physical contrasts. Irwin has a lean, predatory look. Fleisher's physique suggests a Beverly Hills orthodontist. Irwin threw Fleisher a few bones early in the week. When Fleisher moved out to a four-stroke lead after the second round, Irwin tossed a white towel in his direction and, eyeing the leader's choice of snack, said, "There's Bruce, eating hot dogs and kicking our butts." Hearing that a reporter had told Fleisher that on the course he "had all the personality of wallpaper," Irwin took the writer to task. But Irwin, being Irwin, was no doubt all the while thinking, This guy is mine. When Irwin ended Saturday's round only two strokes behind—Fleisher had missed a four-footer for par at 18—he went helmet-first for the psyche.
"The difference may be that I've been in this position before, and this is the first time Bruce has," said Irwin, talking about their matchup the next day. "I'm sure he's going to be reminded of that many times. Questions like, How do you feel? What are you going to do tonight? Those are questions you can't answer until you've been there."
A few minutes later Fleisher was asked if Irwin might be employing a bit of gamesmanship. He smiled and said, "What I've seen this season is a kinder, gentler Hale Irwin." How so? "He actually talks to me."