AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters champion is supposed to fit the profile. You know, big hitter, great putter, a flair for drama, multiple victories — in short, a marquee name. It doesn’t always work out that way. For details, see Iowa’s Zach Johnson or Canada’s Mike Weir.
Enter Steve Flesch. You know him best, if you’re familiar with him at all, as kind of a hot-headed lefthander who wears his emotions on his sleeve — emotions that tend to gravitate toward ticked off. He lives and dies with each shot.
But the question on Friday at Augusta was pretty simple: Why not Flesch? He fired a bogey-free 67 and moved prominently onto the leader board. All right, so he doesn’t fit the profile but hey, we’ve already established that a lefty can win here — there’s Weir (2003) and Phil Mickelson (’04 and ’06). We’ve also established that a shorter hitter can do well here. There’s Weir and Johnson and Larry Mize (the 1987 winner), and don’t forget Tim Clark finishing second. Come to think of it, Nick Faldo, who has three green jackets, was never very long off the tee, either.
The 40-year-old Flesch is an Everyman on the PGA Tour. He lives in Union, Ky., which is a small ranching and farming community that is basically a suburb of Cincinnati. He plays a lot. The fewest number of tournaments he’s entered in the last four years is 30. He reinvigorated his career last year by invisibly winning twice. You’re forgiven if you missed his victory in the Reno-Tahoe Open. It was held opposite the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, where Tiger Woods and all the stars were. Then he won again in September at the Turning Stone Resort Championship, which kicked off the Tour’s Fall Series (otherwise known as The Tournaments That the Tour Wouldn’t Miss If They Went Away). That got Flesch into the top 30 on the money list and also got him back into most of the A-list tournaments, like the majors and most of the World Golf Championships.
Now he’s enjoying only his fourth trip to Augusta and his first since 2005. Flesch, who has also won at New Orleans and at Colonial during his career, hasn’t missed many Masters — he just hasn’t played in many.
“I watched it on TV at home, reluctantly, but I watched,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed [one]. I watch the early round coverage, I watch the re-air to see if I missed anything. I sit in the basement and sulk.”
There was no sulking on Friday. He played a nearly flawless round. Three birdies, one eagle, no bogeys. And that eagle was pretty sweet. It came at the 13th hole, where he wanted to hit 4-iron and his caddie insisted he hit a 3. He went with the latter and watched his shot roll to a stop inside three feet. “Good call by him,” Flesch joked.
The eagle also meant that Flesch would be going home with a nice souvenir, no matter where he finishes. Anyone who makes an eagle receives crystalware. (Crystal is also awarded for the day’s low round.) Flesch eagled the 15th in ’05 and has that crystal in his trophy case in Union. He wasn’t even thinking about that until Craig Stadler, who was in the threesome, also eagled the 13th.
“It’s funny,” Flesch said, “because the first thing Stads said after he made the eagle was, ‘A little more crystal,’ not, ‘Hey, I made eagle.'”
That’s what we mean about Flesch not fitting the usual champion’s profile: He’s not known for his eagle-making prowess. While Augusta National, in its current setup, doesn’t necessarily require power, it never hurts.
“As long as the course was playing for me, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to attack many of the par 4s because I’d have anywhere from 3-iron to 7-iron into them and it’s hard to be aggressive with those clubs into the greens,” he said. “And the 3s are not real short, either — it’s not like you are going to go flag hunting on 12. So the par 5s are where I have to take advantage, and today I was 5 under on them. I didn’t plan on going for the par 5s either, but I got two tee balls out there pretty good on 13 and 15 where I was able to go for the green. If I have to lay up, I worked on my wedge game last week in Jacksonville for three days, so I feel pretty good about that.”
Flesch is known as a streaky player, and when he gets on a roll, he usually stays on it for a while. The Masters is different, though, and he knows it. “If I’m mis-hitting my driver, all of a sudden a 4-iron is turning into a 3-iron or something longer,” he said. “I knew coming in here there would be a premium on me driving the ball well, and honestly, I’m hitting it as far now as I ever have. If anybody knows how to get 15 more yards in the air, there’s 70 guys like me out here who’d like to know about it.”
The other club he needs more than ever is his putter. He went back to a conventional-length putter a few weeks ago after several years of using a belly model. Both his ’07 victories came using the belly putter. “But the last five events [coming into the Masters], I really putted very poorly,” he admitted. “It’s just simply a lack of feel, and that’s kind of what I find with the belly putter. I think you can significantly reduce your feel, especially on short, breaking putts from five, six feet.”
That’s exactly the kind he had left on the 18th after he blew his birdie try past the hole. He rolled the par putt in decisively. “That last five-footer, I had to play a cup and a half outside the right edge,” he said. “When everything is kind of jammed up in your center [with a belly putter], it’s hard to move only the putter back and forth two inches because your whole body has to move. You can’t just move your arms and hands and shoulders like you can with a regular putter.
“I got frustrated because I was hitting it a lot better and not getting anything out of my rounds. I finally decided, I can be a decent putter with the belly putter but I’m not going to be a great putter and run the tables with it. I just made a commitment and said, I’m going back to the short putter. I’ll get my feel back.”
His putting feel was sharp on this day. On the third green, he watched Johnson Wagner race his putt 10 feet past a nasty pin location, prompting Flesch to leave his 30-footer for birdie eight feet short. The ensuing par putt broke left and was downhill. He rolled it in. “That was a big putt,” Flesch said with a big smile. At the seventh Flesch left a treacherous birdie attempt to a tabletop pin position 10 feet short and still faced a downhill slider that had the potential of sailing off the green. He drained it. At the 10th, he ran in another good six-footer for par.
For a guy who was fighting to save his spot on Tour only last summer, earning a return trip to the Masters this week was big. He’s going to enjoy every minute. And…why not?