BALTIMORE, June 26 (UPI) -- Bruce Fleisher, who for the past three seasons has been a dominant figure on the Senior Tour, begins defense of his most important title Thursday at the U.S. Senior Open.
"Whenever I hear defending champion, it still sends a little bit of a chill through my spine," Fleisher said on the eve of the tournament. "It was a wonderful time in my life. I can't believe the year has gone by so fast."
The 53-year-old has learned a valuable lesson -- playing a U.S. Open course is not supposed to be easy. And the 7,005-yard, par-71 Caves Valley Golf Club course will be typically difficult with narrow fairways, fast greens and thick rough.
"The Open's a different animal," Fleisher said. "It should be different, it should be hard. You just have to deal with it. You have to overcome that. Be a man about it."
Fleisher won the 1968 U.S. Amateur title at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio.
"I played in the 1969 Masters and didn't get back to Augusta until 1992, so I'm a late bloomer," he said. "I'm one of those kids that bloom late, versus a rose that kind of dies early. I'm enjoying the ride. It's been a wonderful 3 1/2 years."
Fleisher is winless this year, but ranks fourth on the money list with $989,691 and could close the gap on leader Hale Irwin in the Charles Schwab Cup standings with a victory this weekend.
Less than $400,000 separates the top-five money-winners -- Irwin, Dana Quigley, John Jacobs, Fleisher and Doug Tewell. Fleisher, the only member of the top five not to win a tournament this year, is looking to become the third different player to capture a Senior major title in 2002.
Jim Thorpe took the Tradition and rookie Fuzzy Zoeller claimed the Senior PGA Championship, his first win on the elder tour. The final major, the Senior Players Championship, takes place in two weeks.
Missing from the tournament will be the 62-year-old Nicklaus, who pulled out on Monday due to recurring back problems. He was forced to withdraw from the Senior PGA Championship due to the same injury after barely making the cut.
Nicklaus has appeared in just three competitive tournaments this year. He has 10 Senior Tour titles but none since 1996. Of his 10 titles on the elder circuit, eight have come in majors.
Also withdrawing this week was 60-year-old J.C. Snead, doing so one one day after winning the Greater Baltimore Classic. Snead became only the 11th player to win a Senior PGA Tour event after the age of 60, but he backed out of the Open because of exhaustion.
Irwin, a perennial favorite and two-time Senior Open winner, will be looking to extend a remarkable streak. Although he has not won since the Toshiba Senior Classic in early March, Irwin is seeking his 12th straight top-six finish.
Irwin has two wins this year, his 33rd and 34th on the Senior Tour, and leads Quigley by 383 points in the Schwab standings. Irwin won the 2000 U.S. Senior Open with a record 17-under par 267 at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa.