Sunday, May 28, 2000

Tiger pulls away in Memorial

Flesch's 64 best score of third round

By Mike DeCourcy
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DUBLIN, Ohio — Steve Flesch blundered into one bogey during the third round of the Memorial Tournament, managed just a single eagle and failed to make a hole-in-one. He was punished for these mistakes.

        True, the 64 Flesch fired Saturday morning allowed him to spend an hour or two with the unofficial title of “clubhouse leader,” but he wasn't a whole lot closer to Tiger Woods than when he started. And Woods still was on the course with nine holes to play.

        “It's a little frustrating,” Flesch said, more bemused than defeated. “It's fun to watch. It's not fun to play against.”

        Woods had stormed from a five-shot deficit to a one-shot lead with his brilliant second round, and he nearly topped that in the third by racing to four birdies and an eagle on the front nine at the Muirfield Village Golf Club. When the day was done, Woods' 65 placed him 17-under-par. His six-shot lead over Steve Lowery is the largest third-round advantage on the PGA Tour since January 1999.

        Woods is a decent final round from winning the Memorial a second year in a row. No player has successfully defended in this event, and Woods failed in his seven prior attempts to repeat as a tournament champion on the tour.

        “Well, I thought I would have probably done it in '98 at this course in Georgia. I liked my chances there,” Woods said. “It would be nice to go out there and repeat as champion. It would be nice to get it over with, and then I don't have to hear any more questions about it.

        “I don't think it's over. If it's over, I'd be talking with a trophy here, right?”

        With lift-clean-and-place rules in effect because of a thunderstorm that drenched the Columbus area overnight, 23 of the 80 players left in the field bettered 70, and 39 beat par.

        Former British Open champion Justin Leonard finished with his best round of the year, a 66 that advanced him to third at 10-under. He had missed two of the previous three cuts and finished 61st last week at the MasterCard Colonial, but suddenly is thinking about winning a tournament.

        “You can think we're playing for second, but I don't think we, as players, can go out there and do that,” Leonard said. “People ask me if this is frustrating, but I'm not going to let that spoil what I've gained from this week so far. This is the happiest I've been walking off the golf course in the past eight or nine months.”

        Woods appeared to have John Huston's course record of 61 in serious jeopardy after nine holes. But Woods' only backside birdies came at the two par-5s, and he stumbled to his first bogey in two days when his drive at the 18th went off course. He was forced to punch out short of the green from a fairway bunker, then rolled his par putt off the lip of the cup.

        Although Woods' score was two shots better in the second round, he was more pleased with how he hit the ball and his general play Saturday. He kept the majority of his drives in the fairway, which was essential given the long, wet rough that pulled Woods' playing partners, Ernie Els and Harrison Frazar, down the leaderboard.

        The slight swing malfunction Woods perceived during his second round — which caused him to hit a number of shots fat — was fixed after just 10 minutes on the practice range Friday evening.

        “I didn't make quite as many putts, but it was definitely a better ball-striking day, especially with the wind up as it was,” Woods said. “And when you have the lead, it's always a little more difficult to go out and post a low round, and I was able to do that.”

        As it turned out, Flesch's 64 edged Woods for the best round of the day and tied the tournament low for a third round, though Flesch still is nine shots back at 8-under par.

        He played with a different putter than during the first two rounds, chucking one that featured target lines on the back for a similar model minus the lines. Flesch noticed himself becoming preoccupied with striking the ball precisely where the putter indicated he should and decided that cost him putts he could have made.

        “I haven't really played that particularly well the last two weeks,” Flesch said, “and I was trying to find something in my game that sparks me to play well.”

        He covered the front nine in 31 strokes and, with his eagle at No. 7 and birdies at No. 11 and No. 15, played the par-5 holes in 4-under par. The eagle resulted when he drilled a 3-wood approach to 35 feet, then made the downhill bender.

        Woods, who also eagled the seventh, picked up five shots on the par-5 holes.

        “Those play into Tiger's hands. They're just long par-4s for him,” Flesch said.

        “When you show up at a tournament and Tiger's there, you know he's the one you've got to beat. I just think you have to learn to play the game better. Everybody out here can hit good shots, and everybody can make putts, or they wouldn't be here. I think you have to play the game better.”

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