O'Connor conquers emotion, field in win

State Farm victory cleansing for Irishman

July 05, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Christy O'Connor's emotions wavered at different moments in the final round of the $1.3 million State Farm Senior Classic yesterday at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia.

Thoughts of his son, Daren, who died at age 17 in an automobile accident in September entered his head several times. But what kept O'Connor focused was the fact that Bruce Fleisher wasn't going away.

The three-shot lead that O'Connor had taken into the round and increased to five through five holes was down to one with seven to play. Going into the last hole, ahead by two, O'Connor wasn't sure he would win.

Finally, after Fleisher's last-ditch 20-foot chip for eagle on the par-5 18th hole stopped inches short, and O'Connor tapped in for a par to win by a stroke, the 50-year-old Irishman broke down.

He put his hands on his white cap and then wiped away the tears that wouldn't stop. He hugged his caddie, shaking visibly. And when he raised the Waterford crystal trophy for the television camera, O'Connor cried again.

"It's for him," he said of his son.

A final round of 5-under-par 67 and three-round total of 18-under 198 -- the lowest score in relation to par on the Senior PGA Tour this year -- gave O'Connor his first victory since the 1992 Dunhill British Masters.

It was worth $195,000 and, more importantly, gave O'Connor a year's exemption on the tour. He became the first player to win a Senior Tour event with a sponsor's exemption since Tony Jacklin in 1994.

"A win is a win, but I wanted to do it for my son," O'Connor said. "I think he helped me out there today. It's a very sad day, and it's a very happy day. I miss him terribly."

The back-nine shootout between O'Connor, a former Ryder Cup hero for Europe, and Fleisher, a four-time winner and the Senior Tour's leading money-winner in his rookie year, made for terrific theater.

Despite temperatures approaching 100 degrees, O'Connor and Fleisher broke away from the field early and staged what amounted to match play for much of the round.

"I gave it my best, it wasn't enough," said Fleisher, who couldn't ever remember shooting a final-round 65 and losing by a shot. "I had my chances. I just couldn't do it. I didn't even know what I shot."

The competition was reminiscent of O'Connor's Ryder Cup victory over Fred Couples at The Belfry in 1989.

"Fleisher put the heat on him, but he's been in matches like this before," said Brian Smallwood, O'Connor's caddie for the past three years. "He's battled in the Ryder Cup. That stood him in good stead."

Said O'Connor, "I kept waiting for him to make a blunder, but it didn't happen.

Both players agreed that the momentum changed on the 14th green, with O'Connor hanging onto a two-shot lead after seeing Fleisher close to within a shot by the turn.

O'Connor saved par from 15 feet after hitting a 5-iron approach into a green-side bunker. As the putt went in, O'Connor punched the air and looked toward the heavens, admitting later that he was thinking about his son.

"Pretty good putt there, fella," Fleisher said.

Fleisher missed his putt for birdie, and another birdie attempt from eight feet on the par-5 15th hole. O'Connor immediately rolled in a six-footer for birdie to get to 18-under and increase his lead to two.

"The putt on 14 was really the tournament," Fleisher said.

Said O'Connor, "If I had missed it, and he missed it, it's not that big. But if I missed it and he made it, it's massive swing. Luck was on my side."

When both players missed long birdie putts on the par-4 17th, it came down the last hole. After hitting his approach on the 530-yard, par-5 right of the green, O'Connor's ball landed about a yard from the bleachers.

He dropped three times, the ball rolling back to the canvas facade on each occasion. O'Connor then got to place the ball. His 80-foot pitch stopped 12 feet by the hole. Fleisher's approach had rolled through the green into the rough.

"I was trying to make 3," said Fleisher, who muttered in disgust after he hit the chip, only to see it nearly go in. "I needed 3 to give myself a chance. Another couple of rolls and it was in."

O'Connor waited for Hubert Green to finish his round before making a one-foot tap-in. The crowd, which had taken to O'Connor throughout the week, gave him a standing ovation.

"That's as tough a game as I've ever had in a tournament I won," said O'Connor, who won six events on the European Tour during a 30-year career and nearly won the 1985 British Open, where he finished third.

Still mourning the loss of the youngest of his and wife Ann's three children, O'Connor is thankful that his life on the Senior Tour will now get easier. No more waiting for invitations, as he had to until last week for this event.

The plans he made to live in the U.S. before his son's death will now take place. Ann O'Connor will join her husband at this week's U.S. Senior Open in Des Moines and the two will start looking for a house.

O'Connor remembered what his wife of 23 years had told him over the telephone as she was about to board a plan for Chicago yesterday morning and he was headed to Hobbit's Glen.

"She said, `Don't lose,' " he recalled with a smile. "This is the first time I've ever won without her being there."

Based on what O'Connor did for the past three days, it probably won't be the last.

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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