As Ireland's Christy O'Connor Jr. walked up the hill toward the fifth fairway yesterday, he looked to his right and saw a banner draped over an outdoor deck on one of the nearby homes. "Tis a day for the wearing of the green," it said, and O'Connor smiled and waved his hand at the fans watching him play from their perch.
A few hours later, O'Connor was raising both arms over his head on the 18th hole at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia. He made a routine two-putt from 12 feet for par to hold off Bruce Fleisher, who closed with a 65 and still lost by a shot to O'Connor's 67 and 18-under 198, the lowest score on the Senior PGA Tour this season.
O'Connor's last tap-in putt clinched his wire-to-wire victory in the State Farm Senior Classic and ended a thoroughly draining and emotional day for the 50-year-old.
"That's for my son, thank you so much," O'Connor said, as he addressed the crowd in the bleachers surrounding the 18th green after receiving the crystal trophy and a champion's check for $195,000. He was referring to his son, Daren, killed at age 17 in a car accident last September.
Asked if he had thought about the youngest of his three children at any time during the round, O'Connor choked up and could not speak for a few moments.
"I felt he was with me," O'Connor said later. "I talk to him all the time. I know it sounds stupid. . . . But on the 13th hole, I just felt dreadful walking from the tee to my ball [thinking of his son]. It really got me there."
Playing on a sponsor's exemption this past week, O'Connor appeared outwardly to be the picture of composure despite 97-degree heat to which he was unaccustomed. He also said he had never seen anyone play any better in a final round than Fleisher, who put continuous pressure on O'Connor, with birdies at 16 and 18.
"I can't understand how Bruce Fleisher hasn't won any more tournaments than he already has," O'Connor said. "He's the most solid golfer I've ever seen in all my 30 years, and also a perfect, perfect gentleman."
Fleisher, who said he made a major swing change five weeks ago, said he was pleased to see O'Connor prevail. The victory gives him a 12-month exemption on the Senior PGA Tour, on which he now will play full-time.
"You know what? Honestly, I'm happy for him," Fleisher said. "I'd rather have won, but under the circumstances Christy has gone through, it proves he belongs out here. I couldn't be happier for him. I gave it my best shot, and it wasn't good enough."
Though Hubert Green (72 -- 208) was in their threesome, the day came down to match play between O'Connor and Fleisher. O'Connor had a five-shot lead after birdies on three of his first five holes, and Fleisher made four straight pars and a birdie at No. 5.
By the time they made the turn, O'Connor held a two-shot advantage.
Both men pointed to the 467-yard 14th hole as perhaps the pivotal point in the round. O'Connor's second shot 5-iron landed in the bunker, while Fleisher was safely on the putting surface in two, 10 feet from the hole. O'Connor had hit a bunker shot stiff to the pin from almost the same place Saturday, but this time, his blast came out to the right and stopped 12 feet from the stick.
But O'Connor, who made only one bogey all week, sank the putt, and Fleisher followed by missing his birdie try to the left.
O'Connor stretched his lead to three at the 558-yard 15th when his 4-wood second shot stayed on the green. He two-putted from 30 feet for a birdie. Fleisher was pin-high 25 feet away just on the fringe after his second shot, but he chipped eight feet past the hole on a slick green and missed the comeback putt to settle for a par.
At that point, O'Connor thought he could take a deep breath, but Fleisher made a 20-footer for birdie at the 16th to get within two when O'Connor missed a 15-foot birdie attempt to the left of the cup.
At the 381-yard 17th, Fleisher put his second shot 12 feet from the hole, and after O'Connor missed a birdie try from 15 feet, Fleisher cut the tension by saying, "Were you trying to make that, Christy?" O'Connor laughed, then watched Fleisher's attempt just miss on the right edge.
On No. 18, both men missed the green with their second shots from the fairway. Fleisher's 4-wood bounced on the green but carried over the back, landing in high grass about 25 feet from the pin. O'Connor's second went left, landing about 80 feet from the hole, a yard in front of the grandstand.
A rules official gave him relief from that spot so that he could swing properly from what was a temporary and immovable impediment to his third shot. O'Connor lofted his ball high over a bunker and the ball rolled 12 feet past the cup. When Fleisher chipped to within three inches of the hole and made a tap-in birdie, the stage was set.
O'Connor took his time lining up the 12-footer, then hit it a foot past the hole. When he tapped in, his arms went skyward, and he was embraced by his caddie, Brian Smallwood. The day before, O'Connor had said he would dance an Irish jig if he could manage to win on Sunday, but it never happened.
"I didn't have the energy," he said. But he did have a trophy, a check and that exemption, and as memorable a day as could be imagined. "Fantastic," he said, "just fantastic."
CAPTION: Christy O'Connor Jr., right, hugs caddie Brian Smallwood after last putt sealed win at State Farm Insurance Classic.
CAPTION: Christy O'Connor kisses his winner's trophy. His victory gave him a 12-month tour exemption.