In the old days, his golfing buddies called him leaky for the way he couldn’t close an event.
On Sunday, Bruce Lietzke’s engine nearly seized.
Lietzke, playing in his 53rd major, crept to the first one of his career by taking the 24th U.S. Senior Open at the Inverness Club. He fended off Tom Watson by two strokes after shooting 7-under par 277 on the 6,983-yard layout this week. Vincente Fernandez, the only other player to break par, finished third at 4-under 280.
In winning, Lietzke became the fifth first-time winner of a major at Inverness, joining Billy Burke (1931 U.S. Open), Dick Mayer (’57 Open), Bob Tway (1986 PGA Championship) and Paul Azinger (1993 PGA Championship). He also became the 16th player in Senior Open history who won the event after either sharing or holding the lead entering the final round.
Another runner-up finish for Watson naturally left him disappointed.
"I thought 5-under par would be a lock-cinch win," said Watson, who lost to Don Pooley in a playoff last year.
Said Lietzke, after posting a 2-over 73: "I don’t know where to put this thing. If you’re talking the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA [Championship], I’ve won a major on the Champions Tour. If you call this an all-encompassing major, I’m a little confused where it is."
Don’t be dismayed. Lietzke really was pleased after maintaining all week it was just another event and that golf was secondary to family. When he sank an 8-footer for bogey on the brutal 18th green, he took off his visor and waved it before kissing his wife, Rosemarie. He beamed while signing his card.
"Golf is still the same priority as it was," he said. "There’s nothing wrong with being a father and good husband, and winning a couple of golf tournaments every now and then."
Winning almost became an afterthought.
Coming off a third round in which he scrambled – yes, scrambled -- to a 7-under 64 thanks to 7 of 15 fairways hit, the 51-year-old tactician was moderately worse in the category Sunday (5 of 15). Alas, putting bailed him out.
There were two holes that proved pivotal.
On the elongated No. 8, a 554-yard dogleg left par 5 that had a sloping fairway, Lietzke boomed his tee shot 360 yards. A 5-iron hooked approach shot to 10 feet of the hole followed, setting up a putt for eagle that gave him a six-stroke lead, his largest of the day.
In the meantime, Watson’s cold putting game was epitomized on the same green. He missed a 7-footer for birdie, sighing as he walked off with par. There were six different occasions that he couldn’t convert birdie putts 10 feet or less.
There would be no five-stroke comeback on the back nine as there was last year at Caves Valley.
"I guess I used ‘em all up in the first round when I had all those field goals," said Watson, referring to the 24 putts he took on Thursday compared to the 33 he needed Sunday. "Every putt I had was short or missed."
As Lietzke continued to miss fairways, the door opened just a bit. By the 12th hole, Watson trailed by three strokes. Watson’s antsy wife Hilary, who was in the gallery, was imploring him to hit every shot well at this point.
The other hole that proved a little more important than the rest occurred on the par-4 14th, a slight dogleg right. Lietzke pulled out driver, something he used just seven times entering Sunday, and wailed his cut drive too far right and past the ropes.
Looking at a row of trees in front of his ball, Lietzke had a decision to make. Pitch out to the fairway or fly over the trees. He chose the latter, opting for a 25-yard hook shot. It worked as the ball came to rest 45 feet right of the hole. Lietzke eventually took par, but with a three-stroke lead, the consequences could have been much worse had the strategy backfired.
"Those two holes [Nos. 8 and 14]," said Lietzke. "I never thought two hook shots would win me a [championship]."
Lietzke staggered on the final two holes, bogeying both thanks to playing out of the rough. He miss-hit out of the right junk, needing three shots to get to the 17th green. And on the 18th, he played out of the right rough into the left-side green bunker.
"I kept on thinking, ‘Well, he’s got to make some bogeys,’" said Watson. "He was leaking a lot of oil, smoking, but it still worked."
To which Lietzke, a self-proclaimed practice-doesn’t-make-perfect protégé, said: "I found out my golf swing does leak a little oil. I have to thank my putting."
Even though next year’s event at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis will be pushed back to July 29-Aug. 1, Lietzke said after Saturday’s third round that he would not defend his crown if he won. He had only learned a month ago that the event wouldn’t normally be held in June.
A family cruise to celebrate his daughter Christine’s high school graduation had already been booked, he said. But he changed his tune slightly on Sunday.
"If I can move the dates around, I want to come back and defend this," said Lietzke, adding that he will skip the Senior British Open this year.
The victory also made him $470,000 richer. In addition, he is exempt into next year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, something that hadn’t dawned on him.
"I said good luck at Shinnecock," said Watson. "He looked at me like, ‘Huh?’
"Bruce is a wonderful person. He’s a well-liked guy out here by everybody."
In the early 1980s, Lietzke drastically cut back on his PGA Tour schedule when he got married and had kids. No longer were majors, or golf, as important to him as he became immersed in coaching his son Stephen in little league baseball for six years. Then it was his daughter’s turn in softball.
In the last few years, Lietzke has escorted his son to junior golf events. When he was eligible to join the Champions Tour in 2001, he posted seven top-10s in the 10 tournaments he appeared in.
Lietzke credits three-time Senior Open winner Miller Barber and golfing icon Don January for his success. In the early 1970s, Barber and January took the precocious Ben Crenshaw, Bill Rogers and Lietzke under their wing in Texas.
Lietzke and Rogers, roommates and teammates at the University of Houston, became close friends. The two befriended Crenshaw, who had played at the University of Texas. For the better part of a year, the two pros would "beat the brains out of us," said Lietzke.
But the apprentices learned. Barber and Miller would take the time to explain why something worked or didn’t work on the course.
"I give them a lot of credit for my career," said Lietzke.