Bruce Fleisher and Jim Thorpe came from opposite directions when they landed on the Senior PGA Tour three years ago.
Fleisher was a former teen-age hotshot whose career on the regular tour never met the expectations that were heaped on him after he won the U.S. Amateur. Thorpe was a former hustler who wound up winning three times and nearly $2 million in a 22-year career on the PGA Tour.
Their time on the senior tour has also seen varying levels of success. Fleisher has won 11 times; Thorpe only twice. So it was no surprise that while Fleisher and Thorpe arrived in the same place yesterday - first place - in the $1.45 million State Farm Senior Classic, their methods were different.
In shooting a 7-under-par 65 at Hayfields Country Club to finish with a 36-hole total at 8-under 136, Fleisher started his round with a birdie and an eagle. In catching Fleisher for a share of the lead, Thorpe made birdies on each of the last three holes for a round of 3-under 69.
They hold a two-stroke lead over three players - Allen Doyle and Mike Smith, both of whom also finished with a 65, as well as first-round leader Doug Johnson, who shot even-par 72. Former U.S. Open champion Tom Kite, who had an even-par round Friday, is one of five players at 139 after shooting 5-under.
"This is the type of golf course where somebody can shoot 63 or 64 after being three shots behind," said Fleisher, 52, who recently won for the third time this year at the U.S. Senior Open at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass. "If I go out and shoot pars, I'm not going to win the golf tournament."
Said Thorpe, 52, who won twice last year, "To be honest, I think that if I can beat Fleisher and Doyle, I can win the golf tournament."
Fleisher showed why he has been the most dominant player since qualifying for the senior tour. He made a 3-footer for birdie on the par-4 opening hole, a 4-footer for eagle on the par-5 second hole and a 12-footer for birdie on the par-4 seventh hole.
Things seemed to slow down for Fleisher with a stretch of five straight pars, but he made a 12-footer for par on the par-4 12th and then birdied three of the next four holes. He missed another chance for birdie when he hit a poor chip on the par-5 18th and had to settle for a par.
"It was a wonderful day," Fleisher said. "I didn't hit the ball as well today as I did [Friday], but I was able to shake a few in."
Though he doesn't have the same kind of history as Tiger Woods does on the PGA Tour as the leader going into the final round, Fleisher is the type of player who doesn't give tournaments away. The only tournament Fleisher has lost with more than a one-shot lead was last year's Senior Open.
"He's hard to catch because he doesn't make any mistakes," Doyle said. "He never hits his irons far enough off line to get into trouble and he's got a good short game. If he is a stroke or two ahead of you, you're going to have to flat-out outplay him the next day. He isn't going to have a bad day."
Doyle, who turned 53 on Thursday, hasn't had as many good days this year as he did during his rookie year in 1999, when won four times and finished third on the money list with more than $1.9 million. He recently broke a 16-month winless drought with a victory at the Ford Senior Players Championship.
Yesterday's round was his best this season.
"After the Ford, I was a little more pumped up than usual," Doyle said. "I tried not to put a lot of pressure on myself. I've made $1.2 million [actually $1.6 million this year], but I'm playing for the wins. It was nice to win and to win the way I did added a little spice."
Win or lose, Thorpe always adds a little spice to the proceedings. Chomping on a cigar, going for broke, Thorpe still plays much the same way as he did when he and his brothers were making a name for themselves around the public courses in Baltimore after Thorpe attended Morgan State on a football scholarship.
Thorpe's attitude changed a little earlier this year when his oldest brother, Elbert, died of cancer.
"He told me to live each day as if it's going to be your last," Thorpe said after the opening round. "I can walk out of here knowing that I've done whatever I can do, then I'll go out and bet a few craps, bet a few horses and let bygones be bygones."
It didn't seem as if Thorpe would be a good bet to win this week early in yesterday's round. He missed a couple of short putts for birdie on the first two holes and topped a 3-wood from the fairway on the par-5 fifth. But he managed to get his 7-iron approach to within 2 feet and birdied the hole.
"That kind of got me going," he said.
Thorpe relinquished the lead he held briefly after two straight bogeys to close the front nine made. After six straight pars to start the back nine, Thorpe went on one of his characteristic birdie streaks. He had an 18-footer for eagle on the par-5 16th, and tapped in. He then made putts of 12 and 4 feet for birdie.