BETHLEHEM, PA. — BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Tom Kite has a ruddy complexion, a certain Santa Claus-like color in his cheeks that makes him look like he's perpetually happy or embarrassed.
Standing on the sixth green at rain-softened Saucon Valley Country Club yesterday, he was particularly pleased because he had just birdied three of his first five holes. Riding an emotional wave, he took a glance at the scoreboard next to the green ... and then lost just a bit of that healthy color.
"I'm 3-under-par through four and thinking, 'All right, maybe I'll pick up a little ground,' " said the Texan, who added four birdies along the way for his third-round 66. "Step up on the sixth green and, gosh darn it, I haven't gained a thing on anybody."
It was that type of day at the U.S. Senior Open. Hale Irwin, who started the day four shots behind leader Bruce Fleisher, shot a nearly immaculate 65 and only gained two strokes. Kite shot a 5-under par 66 and went nowhere. Hubert Green put up a respectable 69 and actually fell back two shots.
The main culprit was Fleisher, who continued to believe that this wasn't a difficult, par-is-a-good-score USGA event, but rather some sort of bizarre, 72-hole member-guest scramble. He shot a 4-under-par 67 yesterday for a 200 total.
Of course, the prize for winning this week isn't a Club Med vacation or a tacky golf shirt. This is for the senior national championship, a fact that isn't lost on the more-experienced Irwin, who will be playing in the final group with Fleisher, just two shots behind.
"The difference [today] may be that I've been in that position before, and this is the first time Bruce has," said Irwin, who counts the 1998 Senior Open among his 27 Senior Tour wins. "To him, this is sort of unknown territory. I think I'm in a great position. I don't have the weight of the world, so to speak, on my shoulders, like he does."
As far as the weight of the world goes, Fleisher continued a very good Atlas impersonation yesterday, never flinching while his lead was attacked from all sides. An on-course stoic, the reserved Fleisher calmly made long iron shots look like they were simple chips.
He began his third round by birdieing the first and third with hard-spinning approaches that smothered the flag and then converted the putts.
In the past two rounds, he has played the opening three holes in 4 under par, and, overall, he is 10 under for the tournament on the front nine. Of his four birdies there yesterday, none required putts outside 12 feet.
"I'm not going to back off [tomorrow], I can tell you that much," said Fleisher, who has never won a major on the PGA or Senior tours. "I'm just going to try to play the way I've been playing the last three days, and it may be good enough [and] it may not."
It was just barely good enough yesterday, as Irwin hovered around the lead like a mosquito around a campfire, never letting the flaming Fleisher too far out of his view. He made bogey on the second hole but then, as penance, proceeded to birdie four in a row and six of his next seven.
"I played the first two holes very mechanically, very poorly," said Irwin, who mentally admonished himself at the third tee. "And I just said, 'I'm going to turn it loose.' Fortunately, I hit some good shots thereafter and built up a little steam."
While Irwin was building up steam, Kite may have been wondering if he had offended a forest at some point in his past. Playing in his first Senior Open, the tour rookie was making magic early, birdieing three holes in a row from the second hole to the fourth, but then he drove wildly off the seventh tee.
Stuck behind a tree with branches hanging low, Kite was forced to punch out with a 7-iron (which nipped a limb), leaving him well short of the green. A missed 12-foot par putt gave him his only bogey on the front nine.
For the untested Fleisher, mental barriers may be the biggest problem today. However, yesterday, faced with a back nine that featured difficult greens, as well as onrushing competitors, Fleisher showed he could handle the stress.
"My first real experience as far as a major, [and] I'm going to try to go into it as manly as I can," he said. "I'd like to sit here and say I'm going to have fun with it, [but] I'm not. It's going to be tough. Maybe it's my time."