Monday, May 5, 2003

Flesch gets first career win

Beats Estes in playoff

Alexandria (La.) Town Talk

Steve and Lisa Flesch celebrate with their children, Lily, left, and Griffin after Flesch beat Bob Estes on the first playoff hole.
(AP photo)
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NEW ORLEANS -- The biggest comeback in the history of the HP Classic belongs to Steve Flesch.

On the other hand, the biggest tournament collapse belongs to Scott Verplank, a former PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year.

Flesch started the final round brimming with confidence Sunday, even though he was seven strokes off the record pace of 21-under-par Verplank had set through 54 holes at English Turn. The three-time Tour runner-up, who twice before finished second in this tournament, emerged from the pack for his first Tour victory, capping a 7-under-par 65 round with a 40-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to beat Texan Bob Estes and claim the $900,000 first prize.

Verplank, meanwhile, left the course in tears after a disastrous double bogey on the final hole gave him a two-over-par 74. The round left him baffled, frustrated and in third place, his hopes of winning as jolted as the martini cup where his ball landed inside the grandstands flanking the 18th hole.

"I just played bad, I don't know what else to say," said the 38-year-old Verplank, who took the lead in the second round and held it until he bogeyed 16. "... I just didn't putt any good and didn't feel comfortable over the ball on darn near any shot."

Flesch, the seventh left-hander to win a PGA event, felt right all day.

He said he felt that way when he left the hotel for the course and the wind was blowing 15-20 mph.

That feeling was confirmed when he started with three birdies on the first four holes.

Then, when it came down to that 40-foot putt on No. 18, the first playoff hole, he felt almost invincible.

"I didn't even feel like I needed to read the putt," he said. "Something inside me was just saying, you know what? You're going to make it anyway. I remember reading the putt, but I don't even remember what I read. I just knew I was going to make it. When it got over the rise, 15 feet from the hole, I knew it was in.

"I think it was one of those things where maybe it was just my time."

Verplank, after an uncharacteristic 332-yard drive at 16, plunked his 74-yard approach shot into a bunker on that momentum-turning bogey hole.

"I was too close to the green," he said. "I didn't think I could hit it that far down there. ... I'm up there where I have to hit an absolute perfect shot (74 yards from the pin) to get it to stay on the green."

The shot landed so deep in the bunker it looked like a half-burrowed sand crab. He sent the next shot past the green by a drain below the green, symbolic of where his game was heading. Yet, he nearly holed out a par from 40 feet, missing by a half-inch to the right.

Then, after Verplank found another bunker on the par-3 17th but saved par by drilling in a right-to-left 30-foot putt, Estes said he thought to himself, "Maybe this is his week."

Not so, Verplank, not so.

The tank came hard for Verplank, who wears an insulin pump while he plays to regulate medication for diabetes, with the double bogey on 18. He hit his first shot into a downhill bunker lie. Then he hit a 4-iron into the grandstands, about 90 yards short, and he took a club length drop for line of vision relief.

"It might have been better," he said, "if I hit out of that martini cup I was in there."

OTHER TOURNAMENTS: Grace Park sank a 20-foot par putt on the final hole for an even-par 71 and a one-stroke victory at the inaugural LPGA Michelob Light Open.

• Tom Jenkins shot a 5-under par 67 to win the Champions Tour Bruno's Memorial Classic in Hoover, Ala., by three strokes.

• Mathias Gronberg shot a 7-under-par 65 for a two-shot victory at the Italian Open.

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