3 shots back, 'Golden Bear' in hunt at Senior Open


BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bruce Fleisher tied a course record yesterday and Hubert Green shot a thrilling 66. Dave Stockton didn't make a bogey all day and Isao Aoki had a 31 on the back nine.

None of it seemed to matter.

For the fans at Saucon Valley Country Club, the message was simple: Jack is back.

Jack Nicklaus, fresh off his emotional farewell to the U.S. Open, summoned his umpteenth sparkling performance from years gone by, piecing together a solid 4-under-par 67, which leaves him tied for sixth place after the rain-delayed first round of the U.S. Senior Open. He trails Fleisher, who tied Orville Moody for the lowest 18-hole score in a Senior Open, by three shots; is two back of Green; and is one behind Aoki, Stockton and Hale Irwin. Play was suspended for the day at 8:24 p.m. with nine players still on the course.

Even though his tour of Pebble Beach two weeks ago was supposed to be his final rounds in the national championship, Nicklaus' move yesterday already has people dreaming of glory for the 60-year old come Sunday - and of the exemption into next year's U.S. Open that comes with a victory.

For Nicklaus though, those thoughts are premature. His five-birdie, one-bogey performance was just his second round in the 60s all year and only his sixth under par. The legend has made too many final-round charges in his career to get too excited about a first-round number. He knows as well as anyone that a good Thursday score and 5 bucks will get you a pack of Top-Flites, nothing more.

"I sort of made up my mind that I played too defensively at Pebble Beach and I needed to get a little more aggressive with my golf game, and so I just decided to do that," said Nicklaus, who missed the cut at the Open. "I felt for about a month or so that I have been hitting the ball pretty well, but I haven't been getting much to happen. Obviously, I have got to follow it up, but it's the first time I have felt good about a round of golf when I have walked off the golf course in quite a while."

As for walking on to the course, the Golden Bear took a page out of his own book. He burst out of his cave yesterday morning, clawing out birdies on the first three holes (including a chip-in from off the green on No. 3) and saving a par on the fourth hole to give him confidence with his putter - something that has been missing from his game.

"Two things I haven't been doing is saving it when I am missing the green, or converting it when I hit it on the green; first four holes, I did both," said Nicklaus, who opened his round with three birdies, which had never been done here before. Jim Thorpe registered four straight birdies, setting a record for consecutive birdies in a U.S. Open at Saucon Valley.

And just like every Saturday-morning hacker, even the game's greatest player began to get nervous when he realized that he had a good round in the making. He got even more nervous when he bogeyed the 17th after going in the bunker right of the green.

"That is the whole secret of playing golf, you've got to go finish the rounds," said Nicklaus, who heeded his own advice and birdied the 18th hole with a sizzling 6-iron to four feet. "It's very simple to walk around a golf course and shoot 75 or 82 or whatever it might be and sign your scorecard with very little nervousness. When you are shooting 67 ... you don't want to be stupid and lose it."

Unfortunately for Fleisher, what would have been the round of the day anywhere else became nothing but a sideshow yesterday. His eight-birdies-in-12-holes run from the fifth to the 16th gave him a 64, setting a tournament low at Saucon Valley. He made a bogey on the 18th hole, but otherwise looked as though he was playing a pitch-and-putt course, as opposed to a championship track.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself because of what I have done in the past year and a half," said Fleisher, who has won 10 times since joining the Senior Tour in the middle of 1999. "I think the weather was the winner [yesterday] - cool temperatures, overcast, it kept the course under control. If it gets windy tomorrow, hot, dried out, you will see a different course altogether."

Along for the ride was Stockton, who rode Fleisher's wake like a pro.

The 1996 Senior Open champion nearly aced the par 3 11th, and didn't make anything but birdies and pars all day long.

"I think [he and Fleisher] fed off each other," said Stockton, who hasn't won since 1997. "It was fun playing. Bruce wasn't making any mistakes, and so you are seeing good shots every hole. It looked relatively simple the way he was making it go."

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