<
>

Flesch drains 30-footer in playoff for first PGA Tour win

5/6/2003

NEW ORLEANS -- Steve Flesch walked up to the green on the first playoff hole, and even though his ball was 35 feet from hole, there wasn't a doubt in his mind.

''I remember reading the putt, but I don't even remember what I
read,'' he said. ''I just knew I was going to make it.''

Flesch won for the first time in his career Sunday, capping an impressive comeback with that 35-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole at the HP Classic of New Orleans.

Flesch, who began the day seven shots behind leader Scott Verplank, shot a final-round 65 to finish tied with Bob Estes at 21-under 267.

''We've been looking forward to this for a long time,'' said the six-year veteran, who couldn't contain a smile as he answered reporter's questions with his fidgety 4-year-old son, Griffin, sitting in his lap.

''Even though I was seven back, I came out of that hotel this morning, that wind was blowing 15-20 mph, I knew I had a chance,'' he said. ''My biggest battle is always just hanging in there long enough. I'm always trying my butt off, but sometimes I just think that there is no way I can win. Today, for some reason, I just knew from the first hole.''

Verplank held a two-stroke lead with four holes to play, but bogeyed 16 and double-bogeyed 18 to finish a 2-over 74. He was third at 19-under.

''I just played bad. I don't know what else to say,'' he said. ''I had plenty of opportunities to get a little distance and I didn't make the putts.''

Flesch joined Mike Weir as the only left-handers to win on tour this year. Weir has won three times, including The Masters last month.

Both Estes and Flesch hit solid tee shots to start the playoff hole, the challenging 471-yard, par-4 18th, which yielded only two birdies in the final round. They reached the green comfortably in two.

Flesch's ball was just a few feet from Estes' and about five feet farther from the hole.

The winning putt rolled steady, straight and fast, and when it dropped Flesch leaped into the air and pumped his fist over his head, taking a victory lap around the green.

''Fifteen feet from the hole, it got over that ridge ... I knew it was in,'' he said.

Estes never thought he would have to make birdie to stay alive.

''But it was just the perfect putt, and I just didn't get mine high enough so it never had a chance,'' he said.

His chance to extend the playoff was wide left and Flesch had won the $900,000 first prize.

Flesch pulled within a stroke of the lead with a birdie on 15, but could get no closer. He made a couple of clutch shots to save par on 18, including one from the sand that flew 135 yards and put him comfortably on the fairway. His 7-foot putt kept the pressure on Verplank and Estes, who had four holes left.

Flesch moved into a share of the lead while trying to keep warm on the driving range. He said he was listening to radio coverage of the tournament.

''I didn't want to watch it, but listening was worse,'' he said.

Verplank, who struggled to hit greens and fairways all day, made his third bogey of the round on 16 to fall to 21-under. Meanwhile, Estes birdied the hole to create a three-way tie for the lead.

Verplank completed his collapse with an ugly double-bogey that started in the sand and included a shot that sailed into the grandstand.

Estes forced the playoff with a par by getting up and down with a 30-yard chip from the front of the left bunker and straight-on 4-foot putt.

He played the final 55 holes of regulation without a bogey.

Rookie Mark Wilson played his best tournament of the season as a second straight 69 left him alone in fourth at 18-under 270.

The stiff winds that normally protect the wide fairways of the English Turn course finally made an appearance Sunday, after the golfers had their way for three days.

It showed in the final-round scores for almost everyone but Flesch, who has three second-place finishes, including one here in 1999.

Verplank entered the day with a three-stroke lead but it was
clear from the start he would have a tough time pulling away for
his first victory in two years.

He failed to capitalize on No. 1 when he missed a 6-footer for
birdie. He came back with a birdie on the 519-yard par-5 second,
but his tee shot on the 200-yard, par-3 No. 3 landed in the sand
and had him muttering to himself.

Verplank's mood picked up substantially moments later.

With the wind at his back, Verplank chipped from 21 yards. The
shot made the green, then took a long roll toward the stick. When
the ball fell for birdie, Verplank dropped his club and raised both
arms over his head with clenched fists. He gave his caddy a
high-five, then doffed his cap and gave the gallery a wide smile as
he moved to 23-under and took a four-stroke lead.