Thursday, March 22, 2018

Bruce Fleischer leads after first round of Encompass Insurance Pro-Am

LUTZ — Of all the players making a run for the top of the Encompass Insurance Pro-Am leaderboard Friday, Bruce Fleischer has to be one of the unlikeliest.

Fleischer, 63, hasn't won a tournament since 2004. He has played in only two events this season and didn't break 70 in either. In fact, he hasn't even played competitive golf in almost two months.

But everything fell into place for Fleischer during the opening round at TPC Tampa Bay. He fired a 6-under 65 while playing in the last pairing of the day to take a one-shot lead over Michael Allen and Chien Soon Lu.

He's two ahead of five others, including 2010 champion Bernhard Langer and Corey Pavin.

"My expectations were way low," said Fleischer, who won the bay area's Champions Tour event in 2000 and 2003.

"This was totally unexpected. I don't know where it came from."

Fleischer has played at TPC Tampa Bay every year since joining the tour in 1999. He has won 18 times on the senior circuit. But this year, he decided to cut back on his schedule.

He plans on playing only 11 events and might retire afterward.

"This tour is not for 63-year-olds," Fleischer said. "You have to move along and write another chapter. I've had a wonderful run. I don't need to prove anything to anybody. My wife doesn't travel much with me anymore, and it's no fun out here alone. And I have a grandson, who, quite frankly, I'd rather be with."

But for one day at least, Fleischer was happy to be on a course. He birdied his first hole, the par-4 10th, then bogeyed the 11th. After that, he birdied three more holes on the back nine and added three birdies on the front.

The last time Fleischer shot 65 was June 4 at the Principal Charity Classic. The last time he broke 70 was 22 rounds ago in August at the 3M Championship.

"I was nervous as heck," Fleischer said. "It took me three holes to calm down. I actually picked up my clubs about a week-and-a-half ago to get ready."

Unlike Fleischer, Allen has been playing well lately. He finished second two weeks ago in Mississippi and has two thirds this season. He's second on the money list at $421,782.

Allen's 5-under 66 included eight birdies, but he also had a double bogey and bogey.

"I'm satisfied," Allen said. "I could've played a little better, and I need to make better decisions as I go. But I'm happy where I am. I'm close, and you need to get out early in these tournaments."

Lu, who is from Taiwan, also was happy with the way he played. This is his second year on the tour. His only other experience with U.S. golf was in 1992, when he played 11 events on the Hogan Tour (now called the Nationwide Tour).

"I drove the ball very well," Lu said. "My putter, not so good."

If there is a player to look out for among the large group within four shots, it's likely Langer. He missed last year's tournament with a thumb injury but is back to his steady form.

"I'm very encouraged with my ball striking. But I'm a little upset with my putting," said Langer, who missed the cut at last week's Masters. "I wasn't happy last week either at the Masters. But up until that, my putting stats haven't been too bad this year."

Today they will be chasing Fleischer. He will tee off in the morning, which will give him a chance to post an early score. If he can put together another day like Friday, maybe he'll reconsider that retirement decision.

"I hit the ball beautifully, and I putted very well," Fleischer said. "It wasn't luck. But I can't figure it out. Hopefully, I can keep it up over the weekend."