STEVE FLESCH SAYS WHAT OTHER PLAYERS ONLY think. That's part of his job as one of the 16 elected members of the PGA Tour's Player Advisory Council, the collective voice of the world's best golfers (see "PAC Men"). Flesch can be outspoken because he's not a superstar. He has banked enough wins (four) to garner the respect of his peers, but not enough to worry that his candor will cost him a lucrative endorsement deal or make front-page news. Which isn't to say Flesch doesn't have game. Whereas any discussion of the best left-handers in golf used to begin and end with Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Mike Weir, the fiery Flesch has begun elbowing his way onto his own share of major-championship leaderboards. After winning two non-majors in 2007, the late-blooming 41-year-old had his best year ever in the big four tournaments in '08, tying for fifth at the Masters and finishing sixth at the PGA at diabolical Oakland Hills, where, he admits now, he didn't even play very well. That's Flesch for you, telling it like it is.
Are you smart? Or do Player Advisory Council guys just need to be vocal?
I was really pushed by my mom and dad, and I got my golf scholarship to [the University of] Kentucky. I was honor roll in high school, second in my class. I did well in math and science; my dad was a physicist, so I inherited that gene. I hated the creative stuff like writing.
Why live in Kentucky year round and not someplace warmer like Florida?
It's where I'm from and I like living here. Yeah, the winters are gross, but it's where my family is, and the Cincinnati area [which extends into Kentucky] is a great area to live in. I'm just kind of entrenched. I don't particularly care for Florida at all. I don't mind visiting but I wouldn't want to live there. It forces me to take a break, being here in December. It gets me away from the game. I always complain that I'm a little burnt out anyway, playing as much as I do.
You didn't look burnt out at the Masters and PGA last year. Was there a shot or a stretch at Augusta or Oakland Hills that, had it gone the other way, could have made you a champion?
The PGA, honestly, I never hit it good enough. I was in contention because I was getting up and down from places where you'd normally make double bogey. I holed my final shot on 18 from 120 yards, after I had to lay up out of a fairway bunker. That's how that week went. That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me at a major, the buildup and the roar once the ball went in, and all the people with their hands up in the air like I'd hit a home run at a stadium. I wish I had the picture. To finish sixth there was a total miracle.
I was two shots back of Trevor [Immelman] and I hit an 8-iron on 12 that got caught in a gust and went in the water. I wish, after that, I would have played the rest of the nine more conservatively. My thought was, being 41 years old and not very long, I didn't know how many more chances I'd have to win Augusta. If I'd played more conservatively I could have finished third, but what's the difference between third and fifth? I was going for glory.
Your temper has been known to get the better of you. What was your wildest on-course outburst?
It was at TPC Avenel about four years ago, the last time we played there. I was playing with a buddy of mine, Robert Damron. At the par-5 sixth I hit what I thought was a good second shot but it just never drew and went in the creek. I kind of rested my head on the end of the club in frustration, then stood up and kicked the middle of the shaft while it was still standing up. The club went end-over-end like a perfect field goal and headed right into my partners and their caddies. I'm like, "Oh, my God — anywhere but there!" It landed right between all four of them on the head of the club. The grip end of the club recoiled and smacked Robert's rear end, like he'd been snapped by a towel. It had to have left a mark. I heard it from 30-40 yards away.
You say that you've mellowed. Did that come with age or was it a conscious decision?
I think it's a conscious decision. It's not to say I don't get fiery as much, I just control it better. I realized after many years of expending energy to show the emotion that it just wasn't worth it. It's exhausting getting mad. On the other side of the coin, I think that fire is what's driven me to my success. I can't stand losing. If you've never won anything, you don't know what you're missing.
Let's talk Tour policy. You've slammed course setups. What's your beef?
It's the same every week. Having every par-3 at 230 yards is boring, as is having the rough at five inches. The greens don't always have to be 12 on the Stimpmeter. They water the fairways and around the greens, forcing you to hit a high spinny shot in. We've gotten away from the fact that golf can be played more than one way.
But that's exactly how Tiger and Phil and most of the top players like to hit the ball. Maybe the rest of you guys should learn to live with it.
But let's not set up every course so it's like a major. The public wants to see us make birdies, so let's set up the courses so we can display our skills and show everybody how good we are.
Jack Nicklaus upset the pros when he toughened Muirfield Village for The Memorial and furrowed the bunkers. Who's going to call up Jack and say, 'Enough!'?
It's hard. Jack should have his input, but is it really in the best interest to play the course like that? That was eight-inch rough that obviously hadn't been topped off the day before the tournament, as Jack indicated in the papers.
Are you calling Jack Nicklaus a liar?
No, I'm not, but it was eight inches on Monday and it wasn't touched the whole week. Whether it's the tournament director or whatever, don't tell us it's four-and-a-half-inch rough. I can put my foot in it and see it's over my shoes. It's the same at Arnold's event. That rye-grass rough is sticky and it's five inches long. Muirfield is one of my favorite courses, but from the first time I played it in '98 to 2008, it's gotten harder, not better. The greens are 14 on the Stimpmeter and they're not big; do you need ruts in the bunkers, too?
Should the Tour make you play more? The minimum number of events you have to show up for, 15, seems low.
It wouldn't bother me. I play 32 a year.
Should guys have to play each event at least once every four or five years?
We had that in our pension. To fully vest in one of our retirement programs you had to play every event once every four years, if you played less than 25 events a year. Tiger's not too worried about that vesting program.
In how many of your four Tour wins was Tiger in the field?
Not one: New Orleans, Colonial, Turning Stone and Reno. It means more when he's there. It's a different feeling.
How have you done when you've been paired with him? The first event I really had a chance to win on Tour was at Disney in 2000, the one that Duffy Waldorf won. I played with Tiger on Saturday and Sunday and figured that if I can beat this guy, I'll win the tournament. Well, I tied him Saturday — we each shot 66. On Sunday, I was beating him by two or three shots. Duffy had shot 62, and I had a chance to tie if I birdied the last hole. I was so freakin' nervous, but I hit it to 10 feet on 18. People say, "What kind of guy is Tiger?" I'll tell you. He knew he was out of the tournament, but he came up to me and said, "Knock it in, Fleschy, you deserve it, you played well." It was cool. People think he's selfish, but he knew how I stood, and that I'd never won.
Your fellow lefty Mickelson had a quiet 2008. What's wrong with him?
Phil Mickelson is fantastic. I have learned so much from watching him play. He knows I respect his game, and I don't want to say anything that would upset him, but right now I think he's got two different kinds of coaches. I worked with Butch Harmon for five years, and his way of thinking about the game is a lot different than how Dave Pelz is. Dave's very analytical, very scientific, and everybody respects that. Phil is trying to find a balance between two methods that seem to pull him in different directions.
What else is on the PAC's radar?
Pace of play. There are a dozen guys out here who are habitually slow. It's not that our fine structure isn't strong enough — it's that our officials should be more assertive. We all know who's slow and who's not, and while half of the slow guys say they want to get faster, the other half say, "I don't care if I'm slow or not." Well you know what? You've got 144 guys out there that week and most of them feel you're disrespecting them by taking that attitude. You have 40 seconds to hit the shot, and if you can't do it, you're not playing out here.
Is this why weekend golfers seem to think a glacial pace is okay?
My 10-year-old Griffin now plumb-bobs. I go, "Dude, what are you doing?" He goes, "I don't know, I see you guys doing it on TV." That's exactly why it's wrong for us to be playing that slowly.
Who's the most irritating guy to play with?
Oh, you're going to throw that one at me? I can't say a name, but anybody who has an endless checklist to go through. It's not a missile launch. It's golf.
What could PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem do better?
Tim's done a fantastic job, but some of our problems are because the player's perspective isn't considered. The entire membership should be able to vote on issues.
Will Tiger dominate in 2009?
If he plays at the Masters, I can tell you this: He won't finish out of the top two.
The Masters is going to be a zoo with Greg Norman back again.
That'll be cool! I would love to see Jack and Norman and Tiger all bucking in their prime. You think ratings would be a problem? My worry is that there aren't three other guys besides Tiger to create a rivalry. Now it's so top-heavy that if we don't have Tiger, we don't have three other guys who can carry it.