It was an afternoon of sweatin' with the oldies yesterday at the steamy State Farm Senior Classic. Christy O'Connor Jr. remained the hottest man on the grounds of Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, and he was doing his very best to earn his first victory on the Senior PGA Tour with a 66 that left him at 13-under 131, three shots ahead of fellow rookie Bruce Fleisher going into today's final round.
"I don't believe I've ever played in heat like this in my life," said O'Connor, a native of Ireland, about temperatures that reached the mid-nineties. "I felt like my shirt was on fire."
Still, O'Connor is coolly and calmly composing quite a story in Columbia. Playing here on a sponsor's exemption after missing senior tour qualifying school because of the death last September of his 17-year-old son, Daren, he has a chance to earn a 12-month exemption to play the tour full-time.
A longtime European PGA Tour player best known for his 1989 Ryder Cup victory over Fred Couples, O'Connor, 50, was sizzling from the start yesterday, with birdies on his first three holes, and four of his first six. Over 36 holes, he has had 14 birdies and one bogey, Friday at No. 8. His 13-under total is the lowest 36-hole score in relation to par on the senior tour this season.
Fleisher has been going at a torrid pace as well, but he acknowledged after his second straight 67 that if he hadn't birdied two of his last three holes, O'Connor likely would have had a walkover today. Now, it's clearly a horse race, with both men playing in the final threesome, along with Hubert Green. He birdied No. 18 for 69 -- 136 and is the only other player within five shots of the lead.
Asked if he thought anyone else could get in the hunt, Fleisher said, "Only if Christy slips in the tub tonight and breaks a toe."
"I feel like I do have a chance now," said Fleisher, who has won four events this season and leads the tour in earnings, with $1.26 million. "If you get four or five behind on this course, you'll push some, and that isn't good. Christy is playing with a lot of confidence, and that's big."
More of the same high temperatures and humidity are predicted today. The leaders tee off at 11:40 a.m. and will play in the most severe heat of the day in order to finish by 4 p.m. It's done that way to allow ESPN to then yield to corporate cousin ABC, which is broadcasting the PGA Tour's Western Open starting at 4.
Still, this senior event should serve as a delectable appetizer, especially if O'Connor can withstand the sun. O'Connor said he tried to keep cool yesterday by dipping his head into "the drink bin," large ice-filled coolers for bottled water, on every tee.
In addition to coping with the unfamiliar heat, O'Connor readily acknowledged he will be playing under far more pressure than Fleisher. He is trying to win for the first time on the 50-and-over circuit, and a victory would provide that exemption, which would allow him to play in any event he chooses.
"This is my ticket," O'Connor said. "He's got his ticket, and that should be a huge advantage [to Fleisher]. But if I play like I have been, he'll have to take it off me. If I break 70, it'll be tough for him."
If O'Connor keeps hitting the ball as well as he has over the first two days, giving himself countless makable birdie opportunities, Fleisher will be hard-pressed to catch a man who has won four times on the European tour and played on two Ryder Cup teams.
O'Connor's longest birdie putt in the first two days was 15 feet, and yesterday he had 10 one-putt greens and 26 putts in all. His worst shot came when he pushed a 4-iron from the fairway into a bunker at the 14th hole. He then hit one of his best shots, a blast within two feet of the pin to save par.
He got to 13 under at the 558-yard 15th hole when he chipped his third shot from the right rough within four feet and made that putt. He also missed 12-foot birdie putts on his last two holes as greens began to firm up and gain speed under the baking sun.
Fleisher started off with birdies at the first and third holes but had his second bogey of the tournament when he hit a 5-iron second shot into the rough at No. 4, pitched within 12 feet and missed the putt. He also missed birdie putts of five feet at No. 6 and six feet at No. 12, but sank putts of eight feet and five feet at 16 and 17 to put some late heat on O'Connor and cut the margin from five shots to three.
O'Connor said he was planning to go back to his air-conditioned hotel room nearby and probably not go outside again until he has to show up at the course this morning. "I don't feel much like doing a jig right now," he said. "Maybe if I win I will."
State Farm Senior Classic
Where: Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, Columbia.
When: Through today.
TV: ESPN, 2 p.m.
Gates: Open at 7 a.m.
Information: Call 410-964-0900.
CAPTION: John Jacobs (71) peers intently at a perilously perched putt by playing partner Hugh Baiocchi (70) on the ninth hole at State Farm Senior Classic. Jacobs is tied for eighth, Baiocchi is in four-way tie for fourth after 2 rounds.
CAPTION: Christy O'Connor acknowledges the crowd after finishing his second round and taking three-stroke lead.