Its Fleschs Turn to Win

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In a poll taken at this years Mercedes Championships, many of last years winners pronounced Steve Flesch as the most likely first-time winner in 2003.
 
This was nothing new. Others have been expecting Flesch to breakthrough ever since his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 1998.
 
Five years later he finally did ' and he did so in the event that had teased him twice before.
 
Flesch won the HP Classic of New Orleans when he made a 35-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death. Flesch defeated Bob Estes to record win No. 1, in tour start No. 174.
 
''We've been looking forward to this for a long time,'' Flesch said.
 
'To be honest, I wish before I left the green I would have walked it off, but I'm guessing it was 35 feet, and I told some of the television media that when I walked onto the green I didn't even feel like I needed to read the putt. Not that I had the putt before, but I just - I don't know, 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. That's the only way I can describe it.
 
'I think it was one of those things where maybe it was just my time and maybe somebody knew it, and I just kind of let my ability take over, I didn't overanalyze it, which I tend to do sometimes, and I just let instinct take over, and I did, so here I am.'
 
The victory was exceptionally sweet considering the venue. Flesch, who owns three career runner-up finishes on tour, had twice finished second in this event, in '98 and 99.
 
This time he got his revenge by shooting a bogey-free 7-under 65 Sunday. Having started the day seven off the lead, he was safely in the clubhouse at 21-under-par 267.
 
Overnight leader Scott Verplank (74) bogeyed the 16th to fall to 21-under, and then double bogeyed the final hole to miss the playoff by two strokes.
 
''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.''
 
Estes, on the other hand, birdied 13, 15 and 16 to reach the magic number, before parring his final two holes for a 69.
 
In the playoff, both men hit the fairway on the 471-yard, par-4 18th. They also each hit their approach shots within five feet of one another. Flesch went first and rolled in the lengthy birdie effort, dead center. Estes then missed his wide left.
 
'I got onto the putt and I just tried to go through my routine, but I don't remember hitting - just 15 feet from the hole, when it got over that ridge, 15 feet from the hole I knew it was in,'' Flesch said.
 
A year after a record 18 first-time winners were seen on tour, Flesch joined Ben Crane (BellSouth Classic) as the only maiden champions this season. He earned a career-high $900,000 for his triumph.
 
Thanks to rounds of 65-63-67, Verplank entered the final round with a three-stroke lead over Estes. He increased that advantage with birdies on Nos. 2 and 3.
 
The wind then began to pick up, and Verplank started to drop.
 
Verplanks short, downwind approach shot rolled through the green at the par-4 seventh. He failed to get up and down, recording his first bogey of the day.
 
He again missed the green at the par-3 eighth, when his tee shot landed in the front bunker. He blasted out to three feet, but pushed the par putt. Verplanks lead was now down to two, over Flesch and Estes.
 
''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,'' Flesch 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.''
 
Flesch cut it to one with a birdie at the par-5 11th, but Verplank responded with a birdie of his own at the par-4 ninth. Upon the turn at English Turn, Verplank was again two in front. Estes fell four back ' but not out of contention ' with a bogey at No. 9.
 
Flesch appeared, at the time, to be the only man standing in between Verplank and his fifth career tour title. The lefthander birdied the par-5 15th to again get within one, before parring his final three holes.
 
He played the final 55 holes of regulation without a bogey.
 
Fleschs 20-foot birdie putt at the par-4 17th lipped out. He then pulled his tee shot on the par-4 18th into the right fairway bunker. He had to lay up 65 yards short of the green; from where he spun his third shot eight feet below the hole. Flesch made the par putt, and then headed to the range in anticipation of a playoff.
 
That's because Verplank and Estes still had four difficult holes to finish.
 
Verplanks 5-iron, from 193 yards, on the par-5 15th avoided the water guarding the left-hand side of the green. However, it settled in the grass and he wasnt able to get up and down for birdie.
 
After bombing his drive on the par-4 16th, he decelerated on his wedge approach shot, leaving it buried in the front greenside bunker. He made bogey to drop to 21-under.
 
Estes, meanwhile, birdied 16 ' his third birdie in four holes ' to make it a three-way tie at the top.
 
Verplanks woes continued at the par-3 17th. His 7-iron again finished in a bunker. After leaving his second shot 30 feet short of the hole, he slammed down his sand wedge, and then slammed in the par-saving putt ' his ball ready to race off the green had it not hit the back of the hole.
 
Estes had no problem finding the fairway at the last, but Verplank found yet another sand hazard. The 38-year-old Oklahoman, in an effort to avoid the water along the left side of the hole, sliced his second shot into the corporate tents. He was awarded a free drop, some 50 yards from the hole, but, of course, hit his third shot into the sand. This time he made double bogey to finish alone in third place.
 
Estes had bunker problems of his own. His approach shot ended in the front greenside trap; however, he blasted out to two feet to force the playoff.
 
Tour rookie Mark Wilson (69) finished alone in fourth at 18-under-par 270.
 
Related Links
  • Full-field scores from the HP Classic of New Orleans
  • Full coverage of the HP Classic of New Orleans