O'Connor turns up heat, breezes to 3-shot lead

Irishman on brink of State Farm title

July 04, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

On the practice tee at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club before yesterday's second round of the $1.3 million State Farm Senior Classic, Christy O'Connor lamented how the sweltering heat could affect his chances.

The course might be reminiscent of those he plays back home in Ireland, as well as in Scotland, but 94-degree temperatures with matching humidity is as rare in Galway as an unused tee time.

So O'Connor took a different approach.

"We saw him at the sixth hole and asked him about the heat," said John Dorrian, who along with fellow Scotsman George Williamson was following O'Connor. "He said, `I'm thinking about a cool pint of lager at the end of the round, sitting down and singing a few songs on my guitar.' "

O'Connor will have another kind of celebration in store today should he continue to play as he has the past two days. A 6-under-par 66 that included three straight birdies to open the round left O'Connor on the brink of his first Senior Tour victory.

At 13-under 131 -- the lowest score in relation to par through 36 holes at a Senior Tour event this year -- O'Connor leads Bruce Fleisher, the tour's leading money-winner this season, by three shots. Former U.S. Open and PGA champion Hubert Green is five shots behind.

"If I play like I've been playing, it will be tough to take off me," said O'Connor, 50, who is looking to become the first player to win a Senior Tour event with a sponsor's exemption since Tony Jacklin in 1994. "If I break 70, I'll be tough to beat."

That seems likely, considering the way O'Connor has played in Columbia. He has gone without a bogey in the first two rounds. Yesterday, he made putts of seven, 10 and three feet for birdies on the first three holes. None of his six birdies was longer than 15 feet, and he also made a couple of tough par saves.

"The golf course isn't as easy as I'm playing it right now," he said. "The last hole is the only time I felt really tired. I was almost hung over from the heat."

With the temperature expected to reach 100 today, it could come down to an endurance contest as well as a round of golf. Fleisher could have the edge, given that he spent much of his career off the PGA Tour as a club pro in South Florida.

Then there's the fact that Fleisher has won four times as a Senior Tour rookie this year. Conversely, O'Connor, who passed up qualifying school last fall after the death of his 17-year-old son, Daren, in an automobile accident, has played in only six events, mostly with sponsor's exemptions.

"He'll probably have more pressure than I do," said Fleisher, who stayed in contention with his second straight 67, which included birdies on two of the last three holes. "He certainly can use the win so he won't have to worry about sponsorships."

Said O'Connor: "This is my ticket. He's got his ticket. That's a huge advantage."

About the only question in O'Connor's mind is whether he can withstand another round in this kind of heat. O'Connor spent the day dipping his head in tee box containers filled with ice water or filling his white cap with ice and plopping it on his head. That's when he wasn't giving fans in the gallery bottles of water.

"I don't believe I've ever played in heat like this," said O'Connor. "I felt like my shirt was going to be on fire. You've just got to play golf. You've got to play your last round like you did your first."

The steamy temperatures seemed to have more effect on the spectators than on the players. According to Paul Miller, a registered nurse at Howard County General Hospital, about a dozen people were treated for dehydration in a first-aid station at the course.

Those who weren't dehydrated just seemed drained by the stultifying heat.

After Green hit what seemed like a perfect tee shot on the par-4 10th hole, the gallery didn't move. So Green started to applaud himself. A noted curmudgeon, Green turned to the crowd and joked, "That's pretty good for me, people."

O'Connor was next to hit, and when his ball took off on a similar trajectory, there was only a smattering of applause. Then again, there was hardly any movement yesterday, on the course or, more importantly, on the leader board.

In fact, Fleisher put together his 12th straight round under par and actually lost a shot to O'Connor. Green got it to 3-under for the day and 8-under for the tournament until bogeys on 13 and 14, both par-4s. He then made birdies on the last two holes, but his 3-under 69 didn't seem to matter.

"He's playing great," said Green, referring to O'Connor, "and I'm an afterthought."

Said Fleisher: "It's his tournament to lose -- or win."

As they came out of the scorer's tent yesterday afternoon, Green joked with O'Connor about going out last night at the hotel where they're staying.

"I've got an open bar for you," said Green. "I want you to be happy."

O'Connor laughed.

"That's when I play my best," he said.

In truth, O'Connor would probably pass on the lager and the guitar singing to concentrate on resting up for what should be another grueling test. Somebody asked O'Connor what he would do when he left Hobbit's Glen.

"I don't feel like doing a jig," he said. "But maybe if I win tomorrow I will."

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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