Bruce Fleisher wasn’t sure if he was good enough to play on the PGA Tour Champions.
He was wrong.
Not only was Fleisher good enough, he proved to be the poster child for the second-chance nature of the 50-and-older circuit.
And if anyone deserved a second chance in golf, it was the longtime South Florida resident with the swing as sweet as his disposition
Fleisher’s life, like his golf career, played out in a series of acts, each with their own joy and sorrow.
It started with unexpected success as an amateur, was followed by decades of disappointment as a pro before Fleisher got to enjoy golf’s ultimate mulligan – the PGA Tour Champions.
“I never dreamed this would happen,” Fleisher said after he became the dominant player on the PGA Tour Champions to start this century. “Well, I dreamed it, but never like this. I never thought I could be this good.”
That thought was a dominant theme for Fleisher, who died Sept. 23 after a long battle with cancer. He was 72, the same age as his father, Herb, when he died of cancer.
Fleisher never thought he was as good as he was; then again, when you go almost a quarter century without a significant victory, confidence no longer is the 15th club in your bag.
“He always had a problem with that,” said his wife, Wendy. “He didn’t have the most self-confidence. I constantly told him how good he was. He knew I was his biggest fan.”
Golf seemed so easy when Fleisher started playing it with his two older brothers while growing up in Wilmington, N.C. When his family moved to Miami when he was 14, his game flourished.
When he was 19, Fleisher etched his name in golf history when he won the 1968 U.S. Amateur by beating amateur legend Vinny Giles at Scioto Country Club (Jack Nicklaus’ childhood course). At the time, he was the third-youngest player to win golf’s most important amateur championship.
That victory earned Fleisher a spot in the 1969 Masters – where he was paired with Arnold Palmer in the first round and beat him by four shots – as well as a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team.
Fleisher, who was Jewish, was also invited to the 1969 Maccabiah Games, where he won the individual title and led his team to the championship.
Two years later, Fleisher entered Q-school at PGA National (now BallenIsles), where he earned a spot on the PGA Tour by making it through the ’71 celebrated class that included Hall of Famers Tom Watson and Lanny Wadkins, as well as David Graham, John Mahaffey and Steve Melnyk.
Fleisher seemed destined to be a star on the PGA Tour. But it rarely plays out that way in professional golf, where 99 percent of the field leaves the tournament without a trophy.
The game can beat you up, chew you up and spit you out.
Fleisher came close to winning with three runner-up finishes, but never could get over the last hurdle. Each year, as he slowly dropped down the money list, his passion for the game decreased. There were too many lonely nights in hotels, not enough late-afternoon Sunday tee times.
By 1984, Fleisher had had enough. He waked away from the Tour to become a club professional in Miami. It wasn’t his dream job, but he got to spend more time with Wendy and their daughter Jessica.
And he slowly found his swing again by teaching it to others. He won the South Florida PGA Professional Championship twice and dominated local mini-tours.
Then, in 1991, it happened. Fleisher got into the New England Classic, held the week before the British Open, when several players withdrew. He shot 64-67 to take a three-shot lead into the weekend. Fleisher lost that lead with a third-round 73, but shot a 64 Sunday to advance into a playoff with Ian Baker-Finch.
The playoff lasted seven holes, naturally, with Fleisher making a 50-footer for the improbable victory.
“This is crazy,” Fleisher said as he held the $180,000 first-place check. “I’ve been away from the Tour for more than seven years.”
“He didn’t have the most self-confidence. I constantly told him how good he was. He knew I was his biggest fan.”
Now he had to wait seven more years for something more rewarding – his 50th birthday, which made him eligible for the PGA Tour Champions.
He had to go to Q-school to earn his way into the most closed tour in golf, but that was the last time his future was in doubt. Fleisher became the first player to win his first two starts (a feat recently matched by Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk) and was second in his next two starts.
Fleisher didn’t stop winning. He won seven times as a “rookie” and was named the tour’s Player of the Year.
This from a player who won once in 408 starts on the PGA Tour.
Fleisher would win 18 times on the senior circuit, most notably the 2001 U.S. Senior Open to give him a pair of USGA titles 33 years apart. Fleisher earned almost 10 times as much money as a senior ($14.9 million) as he had on the regular tour ($1.7 million).
That belated success enabled Fleisher and his family to buy a home in BallenIsles, where they lived for 28 years. That was where his memorial service was held in early October.
His nickname was “Flash,” but there was little flashy about Fleisher. “He was the consummate professional,” his brother Jerry told the USGA. “He shaved every day and he always had a crease in his pants.”
His friends remember Fleisher for more than his game and the way he dressed.
“Forget about the golf,” said longtime PGA Professional Roger Kennedy Sr. “Bruce was one of the nicest guys you will ever meet in your life. A real sweetheart.”
To wit: When Fleisher knew his battle with cancer was nearing an end, he didn’t throw a pity party.
“He was busy to the end, trying to help others,” Wendy said. “Getting them tickets. And our grandson Jake wanted a special left-handed putter, so Bruce found him one.”
Wendy choked up.
“Bruce was gone before it got here,” she said. “But Jake got his club.”
Bruce Fleisher was more than good enough, on and off the golf course.