In honor of the United States Amateur kicking off this week, we present the second half of our interview with PGA Tour Pro and Kentucky Golf Hall of Fame member Steve Flesch, on the 30th anniversary of his 1986 Kentucky State Amateur win.
For someone those of us who will never play golf at the highest levels, his memories contain valuable insights on how someone with actual skill looks at his game and competition. It also is an educational read for any players and parents of aspiring high school golfers looking to play college golf.
OBG: 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of your 1986 Kentucky State Amateur Championship at the Country Club of Paducah. Who was 19 year-old Steve Flesch in the summer of 1986?
Steve Flesch: Someone trying to find his way in the game. I’d just finished my freshman year at Kentucky, my first year there playing, and college golf was a big change coming out of high school, where it’s pretty much all individual, just a couple of tournaments a year as a team.
When you play college golf, you’re trying to get a bearing of where you’re going to fit in on the team. A lot more competitive atmosphere than it was in H.S. I’d played a lot of national junior tournaments against good competition, but college was another step up.
In the summer of ’86, it was a good summer for me. I’d just finished up my 1st year (at UK), and I played pretty well that summer, learning a lot. Comparing yourself to other guys from around the country and the area a little more than I was in some of the local junior and amateur events I was playing.
OBG: Do you know roughly how many times you had competed in the Kentucky State Amateur prior to ’86?
Steve Flesch: I had played in a couple of them. I can’t remember my first one, but I know I played at Glenwood Hall at Perry Park years prior, but not with the kind of success I had (in ’86). I think having played my first year at UK gave me a little more confidence and a little more experience heading in to that ’86 state amateur down there at Paducah.
OBG: Did any of your UK teammates join you in Paducah, or were you the only one playing in the State Amateur that year?
Steve Flesch: Maybe Greg Lehman, but he wasn’t at UK yet. I may have been the only member of the team, though Mike and Jeff Qualman might have played as well. I think one of those two was actually playing well going into the final round, though I can’t recall if it was Jeff or Mike that was in the top 3 or 4, if not leading, heading into that final round.
OBG: Paducah is quite a haul from Lexington and Northern Kentucky. It’s not close to anything.
Steve Flesch: It’s the only time I’ve been (to Paducah), I haven’t been back since. Nothing against Paducah. Well, I take that back, I think I played the State Father-Son with my Dad at Lake Barkley. But other than that State Amateur, that’s the only time I’ve ever been to the City of Paducah.
OBG: Did you drag a gallery down there with you? Family? Friends? A girlfriend?
Steve Flesch: No, I was on my own.
OBG: What, if anything, do you remember about the course or conditions at Country Club of Paducah, a 1984 Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed course?
Steve Flesch: What I do remember is that it wasn’t particularly an easy golf course. I think I shot 3-under the last day to finish +1 for the week. So, you know, one-over winning the State Amateur is a testament to it being a pretty difficult golf course.
I do remember the last day it got pretty breezy and a little more difficult. And I think I got off to a quick start and birdied three of the first four
I was about 5 shots back heading into that final day, and thought I had to shoot something really low like a 66 or 67 to even have a chance. But I was in one of the last 3rd or 4th to last groups, and the guys in the final groups stumbled coming out of the gate, so I knew kind of early on I had a chance.
But not until midway thru the back nine did I think I would be in the lead or tied for lead.
OBG: That was a pretty clutch closing round then?
Steve Flesch: I think I was 5 back and the conditions were a little breezy of the combination of the fairly difficult golf course and the wind made it a tough day.
Not sure if you remember Jim Vernon from Frankfort, he had been playing good but was +4 thru the first 5, and me being -3 thru the first 4 was a 7-shot swing just in four holes. I think I gained a lot of ground on guys really quickly.
Plus, I remember someone had a 40-footer on 18 to force a playoff, but he didn’t make it. It came down the last group, where someone had a chance to tie me, but he missed.
OBG: That was quite a feather in your cap, then, to get out in front and see it all the way through under those circumstances?
Steve Flesch: Yeah, I think so. I was 19 at the time. I had won a couple of Kentucky State Junior titles, but I think the “hot-shot” then was Rob McNamara.
He had won the year before, but he didn’t come back to defend his title. I think he was playing a national junior tournament somewhere or was down at LSU doing something. He was always the guy to beat if we played anything statewide, when I was that age, he was THE guy.
OBG: The Kentucky Amateur dates back to 1911, with some of the biggest names in Kentucky golf on its trophy, besides Steve Flesch. Gay Brewer, Jr., Bobby Nichols, Frank Beard, Johnny Owens, Jodie Mudd. Did you know who any of those people were before you won and read their names on the trophy?
Steve Flesch: (laughing) You know, honestly, I am so bad at that. Even in my job at Fox, and when I was with the Golf Channel, I don’t know who won what in what years. You know, I should know all that stuff, like the Nicklaus titles, and Hogan an all, but I am SO bad at that.
I mean, I had to read an article to refresh my memory about the ’86 State Amateur.
Some guys can remember every shot they hit and every score in a tournament. I can for maybe the last year or two, but going back beyond that, I’m just bad. I remember certain things, but 30 years might be pushing the memory bank back a little too far.
OBG: Fair enough. What did winning the State Amateur Championship mean for you and your golf game going forward? Was the win an experience you would draw upon in the future, or was it just three more rounds of golf during a busy summer season?
Steve Flesch: That’s a good question. One of the things I do remember from my amateur career versus my college career was that I always played better during the summers when it was just individual play. I won a couple of college events, maybe 2 or 3, but I would not say by any stretch that my college golf career was great. Certainly, to me, it wasn’t any indication that I was going to succeed on Tour
I always had more success in the individual amateur events I played, whether they were the national amateur events or the state amateur where it was outside of school during the summertime. I always seemed to play better.
Maybe it was because being in school wasn’t a distraction, maybe it was because it wasn’t being on a team, which wasn’t necessarily a distraction, but as part of a team, you had people counting and depending on you to play well. Maybe I didn’t handle that pressure very well. I always thought the summertime was when I thrived, a lot more just playing events then than during the school year.
So, I think I gained a lot more confidence that year by winning the State Amateur, and a couple of years later winning the State Amateur at Audubon CC in Louisville, than I ever did playing college golf. I really don’t think I played very well in college, but always played a lot better in the summer times.
Thank you, again, to Steve Flesch for peering through the looking-glass with us back to his 1986 and 1991 triumphs in the Kentucky State Amateur and Kentucky Open, respectively. You can currently find Steve as a reporter and commentator on Fox’s USGA event coverage, and coming to a PGA Tour Champions event near you beginning next year.