Bruce Fleisher, a former U.S. Amateur champion, found success in his career’s second act
September 24, 2021
By Laury Livsey, PGATOUR.COM
- September 24, 2021
- Bruce Fleisher won 18 PGA TOUR Champions titles. (Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
When the Ben Hogan Tour began in 1990, there was a familiar player on the membership roster, and early that season in Fort Myers, Florida, he showed up to play his first tournament. Some knew who he was. The name rang a bell to others. But to many of the younger, up-and-coming players who were milling about the Gateway Golf Club range, however, this tall “older” player with the sweet swing was just another anonymous competitor.
They found out soon enough.
Although he hadn’t played in any of the first eight events that opened that inaugural season of a circuit that today is known as the Korn Ferry Tour, Bruce Fleisher made his debut in the Gateway Open, in April 1990. At the 54-hole tournament on Florida’s west coast, Fleisher showed off, tying for second with a long-driving player from Arkansas named John Daly. The duo came up just short, losing in a playoff to Ted Tryba.
Fleisher had returned from anonymity to contend at almost golf’s highest level. He longed to step up one more rung on the ladder, and the runner-up performance let him know he could. Fleisher’s seemingly out-of-nowhere performance that week in Fort Myers came after he essentially walked away from competitive golf six years earlier, electing to become a club pro and only playing a PGA TOUR tournament here and there. Too many lonely nights in hotel rooms away from his wife, Wendy, led to the decision. But more importantly, an abundance of missed cuts and weeks with no paydays played the primary role. This all transpired even though the former U.S. Amateur champ and U.S. Walker Cup team member had joined the TOUR with significant credentials, a beautiful swing and an expectation that he would compete, and win, against contemporaries Lanny Wadkins, Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw. Instead, in 13 full seasons between 1972 and 1984, Fleisher never did hold up a trophy, as he did at the 1968 Amateur.
With that backdrop, it’s not a stretch to say Bruce Fleisher had four separate, distinct careers during a life that ended September 23. He was 72.
“Our thoughts are with Bruce’s friends and family as we mourn the passing of an incredible competitor and friend,” said PGA TOUR Champions President Miller Brady. “Bruce had an exceptional career on PGA TOUR Champions, highlighted by his 18 victories, and we’re forever grateful for the impact he made on so many people throughout his career.”
Fleisher’s first act came as a celebrated amateur. He hit the pinnacle with his one-stroke win over Vinny Giles in Ohio, at the U.S. Amateur at Columbus’ Scioto Country Club. From there, it was on to the PGA TOUR, a natural, second-act progression that didn’t go exactly as planned. While his early TOUR years weren’t all discouragement and frustration, as Fleisher did finish second three times, by 1982, he was 112th on the money list. Subsequent seasons of 103rd- and 138th-place finishes on the money list, respectively, led to a loss of playing privileges. So, he walked away, accepting a club pro job.
“When you get beat up a lot, it’s hard to feel like you’re on top. And I got beat up a lot,” he said, remembering those early PGA TOUR seasons.
Teaching golf for five years instead of playing golf for a living was enough for Fleisher, and what gave him the confidence to give the touring life another go was rooted in two things: his 1989 PGA Club Professional Championship victory in La Quinta, California, where he outlasted Idaho’s Jeff Thomsen to win the title; and the PGA TOUR’s decision to create the Ben Hogan Tour, designed for players just beginning their careers but also for players like Fleisher seeking a second chance.
It was on the upstart tour the following year that Fleisher lost in that Tryba-Daly playoff. It was also where he had a T3 at the Greater Ozarks Open four months after his close call in Florida. In only five tournaments, not exactly much of a season, Fleisher still finished 60th on the money list, his confidence slowly returning. He added international wins at the Bahamas Open and the Jamaica Open, bolstering his I-can-do-this attitude. During his nomadic existence, Fleisher would also play PGA TOUR events now and again as he retained some status, sporadically getting into tournament fields.
Such a scenario happened in 1991 when South African Bobby Cole withdrew from the New England Classic. Fleisher was the first alternate. Off to Massachusetts he went. All Fleisher did at Pleasant Valley Country Club was open 64-67 and take a three-stroke lead into the weekend. He then recovered from a third-round 73 to shoot a sterling Sunday 64 that earned him a spot in a playoff with Ian Baker-Finch, an overtime session that would take seven holes before Fleisher prevailed. The win came with a little Hollywood flair, Fleisher’s clinching putt a 50-foot birdie that looked like it was going to miss on the right side but instead curled in, entering the cup from the back.
“This is crazy. I’ve been away from the TOUR for more than seven years,” he said after accepting the $180,000 first-place check, easily the largest payday of his career at the time. There would be plenty more lucrative weeks. Following seven more full-time PGA TOUR seasons, and one more close call—a runner-up showing at a familiar place and tournament, the 1993 New England Classic, Fleisher patiently waited until he turned 50, in October 1998, to begin Act 4.
To say that Fleisher’s PGA TOUR Champions career was impressive doesn’t even do justice to what he accomplished during a six-year span. Fleisher saved his best performance for last.
In his “rookie” year of 1999, Fleisher won tournaments in his first two starts (the first player to pull off that feat) — at the Royal Caribbean Classic and the American Express Invitational. He picked up five more titles, was a runner-up an additional seven times and cruised to an almost $500,000 money-list victory over No. 2 Hale Irwin. In his first four PGA TOUR Champions appearances, Fleisher had two wins and two runners-up. When he finished 27th in his fifth start, at The Tradition, people didn’t know what to do. By the end of the season, Fleisher was the Tour’s Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year.
“I never dreamed I’d be doing what I’m doing. Well, I dreamed I’d do it. But I never dreamed it would happen like this. It’s a wonderful place to be,” he said.
So, wonderful, in fact, that Fleisher would add 11 more PGA TOUR Champions’ trophies to his case and come oh so close 16 additional times. None was more important that the U.S. Senior Open title he won in 2001, at Salem Country Club, again in Massachusetts. Entering the final round four shots behind Japan’s Isao Aoki, Fleisher made all three of his birdies on the front nine then made pars on his final 12 holes to pull past Aoki and Gil Morgan to give himself another United States Golf Association championship to go with the other one he earned as an amateur 32 years earlier.
Fleisher was so dominant and successful that he still ranks eighth on the all-time money list, some 13 years after his PGA TOUR Champions career began coming to a close.
A few years after turning 50, Fleisher enjoyed telling the story that prior to his rookie PGA TOUR Champions season, a friend suggested to him that he win three times and finish top-five on the money list.
“I told him, ‘You know, that sounds great, but let’s be realistic.”
Fleisher is survived by his wife, Wendy. Funeral services are pending.