Sunday, 4 August 2013

1988 US PGA: Jeff Sluman

As the 1988 US PGA championship neared, the golfing nation of America continued to search for their next hero, someone to take over the mantle of world leader in the manner of a Palmer, Nicklaus or Watson. Curtis Strange may have won the 1988 US Open, but there was a feeling of trepidation as the final major of the year approached, that America had been overtaken as the premier force in the sport, and with the continent of Europe scooping three of the last five majors played, plus the last two Ryder Cups, the shift in power seemed significant.

Few would have chosen the man who would ensure America would redress the balance at Oak Tree, Oklahoma between August 11-14. Jeff Sluman was hardly an imposing figure, standing at just 5 feet 7 inches and weighing in at 9 stone 8lb, and despite having played the professional game for eight years, he had yet to win a tournament on the US tour. But as all American eyes focused on the likes of Azinger, Strange, Couples and Wadkins, the 30-year-old from Rochester, New York, came in from the blindside to shock the world of golf.

The nearest Sluman had come to breaking his tournament duck was in the 1987 Tour Players Championship, and in a period of European resurgence, it was apt that the man to have beaten him in a play-off was Sandy Lyle (although Sluman was not helped by a spectator throwing himself in the greenside lake as he lined up an eight-foot putt for the title). Lyle had gone from strength to strength, winning three times on the US tour in 1988, including his unforgettable Masters triumph. All of this made his decision to sit out the US PGA even more perplexing.

Although Lyle's sister was getting married, the official reason given by Lyle for his absence was that he didn't want to fly to America for just one week: "I don't want to play like an absolute wally and that's what usually happens when I go to America for just one week". Either way it was a flabbergasting decision, one roundly criticised by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, and Curtis Strange, with perhaps the most prophetic summary emanating from the mouth of the 1989 US Ryder Cup captain Ray Floyd: "It's beyond me. I can't understand it, especially considering how well he has been playing". How true. Within a year, Lyle's game had gone off the rails completely, so much so, that he elected to sit out the Ryder Cup after being handed a wildcard selection by Tony Jacklin.

"Not even the absence of Sandy Lyle can dilute the fear among the Americans that the seventieth US PGA Championship, will for the first time fall into the hands of European golf," previewed the Times' Mitchell Platts on the eve of the tournament. Confidence in European golf was at an all-time high, though two problems loomed on the horizon; the weight of history and the weather conditions. Since the tournament had become a strokeplay event in 1958, only Gary Player and David Graham had broken the American stranglehold on the event, and with temperatures of 90 plus expected in Oklahoma, the humidity predicted looked as if it could greatly dent the chances of Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, and Ken Brown.

Even Ballesteros was wary of the weather conditions, mentioning repeatedly that he felt the tournament should be switched to May in order to improve the situation. Seve had other things on his mind though, as leading up to the final major he campaigned to try and get the number of tournaments required to retain privileges on the US tour reduced from 15 to 12, a plea that fell upon deaf ears.

This aside, it was easy to see why the Spaniard had been installed as the bookies favourite; he had won his last two tournaments (The Open Championship and the Scandinavian Enterprise Open) and with Jack Nicklaus claiming that "this course is made for Seve", there was genuine optimism that the genius of Ballesteros could end Europe's drought in the event.

The other two Europeans with a realistic chance were Faldo and Woosnam, although the latter had missed four cuts on the US tour in 1988, and was so concerned with his American experience thus far, that he flew his coach (Bob Torrance) out to work on his game. Faldo meanwhile, was playing superb golf but with little reward; his play-off defeat at the US Open was one of three such losses during extra holes in the season, and a third-placed finish in the Open was another frustrating week for a golfer who had turned his game around so much in the past year. His showing at the 1988 US PGA would reflect his season at large.

In sweltering conditions, it was to be America's Bob Gilder who would lead after day one, his five-under total of 66 setting the early pace. Faldo would be just one shot behind, along with his rival from the 1987 Open Paul Azinger, although even during his superb opening round, Faldo missed numerous birdie opportunities - he would hit 17 greens in regulation, only missing the other by a few inches - narrowly failing to tie Gilder's mark on the last.

Greg Norman managed to shoot a 68 on his return from the wrist injury that had seen him miss the Open, with Sluman a further shot back. Ballesteros' 71 kept him in the hunt, but elsewhere it was a tale of woe for the Europeans. Woosnam's 78 was one of the worst scores of the day, and made his weekend participation doubtful in the extreme; Langer's putting problems continued to hamper him - in one round of the Open, his yips had caused him to make 42 putts - and along with Ken Brown he would go round in 74. European aspirations now rested firmly on the shoulders of Faldo and Ballesteros.

Soon Faldo was all alone. Ballesteros' 75 meant that he missed the cut, unsurprisingly joined by Brown (+5) and Langer (+9). Woosnam's tournament would end on the ninth hole; sitting on +11, the heat and humidity finally got to the Welshman, a severe headache forcing him from the course. "I just couldn't stand it out in that sun anymore," admitted Woosnam, and a week that had begun with noises of European bravado was beginning to look a little foolhardy. "Europe's challenge was almost burned out in the Oak Tree furnace," stated the Daily Express' Martin Hardy, the almost referring to the fact that at least Faldo remained, his 71 putting him five behind the halfway leader Azinger.

Azinger was one clear of the little-known Jay Overton, although the round of the day and of the week was Dave Rummels' 64, who trailed the leader by four. Overnight leader Gilder slumped to a 75 and would not feature again, but two sub-70 rounds by Floyd, Steve Jones, and Japan's Tommy Nakajima left them all in contention. Norman carded a 71 and would play consistently over the remaining rounds, yet as Azinger and Faldo would find to their cost, steady par golf would not be quite good enough on the Saturday and Sunday to claim the title.

Sluman's 70 saw him six shots off the lead, yet for a period on the Saturday it looked as if the rest of the field were playing for minor places, as Azinger, aided by a hole-in-one at the fourth, moved into a four stroke lead. Azinger was brought back to earth with a bump though, as he found water at the very next hole on his way to a double bogey, and on a day when the Oak Tree fought back through both windy conditions and harder greens, any player shooting under par could potentially find themselves back in the mix at the top of the leaderboard.

Two players who took advantage of the lack of movement from Azinger were Sluman and Rummels. Both fired superb rounds of 68, leaving Rummels just one off the lead, and Sluman three behind. Even so, the eventual champion did not sound wholly optimistic in relation to his chances of victory: "It's hard to say. Paul's playing well and he's a proven winner. I'm just going to go out and play my game. I'm not going to be a Greg Norman or a Jack Nicklaus." Not a ringing endorsement for what was to follow.

Azinger's level par round gave the scoreboard a rather more congested feel than might have been expected, with thirteen golfers now within six shots of the lead. Faldo sat four adrift, his 17 pars and one birdie emphasising the consistency in his game that had seen him go 27 holes without a bogey. Worryingly though, his putter was cold, leading the Englishman to describe his round as one of boredom.

As the final round began, Rummels began to go backwards (he would shoot a 75), and all looked set for Azinger to right the wrong of Muirfield, until the par five fifth witnessed the turning point of the 1988 US PGA. Playing a 115-yard approach shot, Sluman sent his pitch towards the hole, his last minute change of heart from a pitching wedge to a sand wedge proving crucial, as thrillingly his ball rolled towards the hole and dropped in for an eagle. Later, Azinger would bogey the same hole - to finish four over on the fifth for the week - and in a flash his three-stroke advantage had been wiped out.

Sluman now had the ascendancy; his birdie at seven coincided with an Azinger bogey at six, and to the general surprise of everyone, Sluman now held a two-shot lead in the final round of the final major of the season. A man who had never won a tournament, who had shot a 76 when leading the Byron Nelson Classic after three rounds earlier in the year, stood at the head of an illustrious field, and what was more, he was showing no signs of bottling his big moment.

The only glimmer of light offered by Sluman came when he bogeyed the 13th, although he would soon get that shot back at the 15th, his stunning final round of 65 (six-under) giving him the joint-second lowest 72 hole total for the US PGA of 272 (-12). Azinger rallied briefly, birdies at 16 and 17 (where he almost got his second ace of the week after hitting the flag) reducing Sluman's advantage to two, but a bogey at the last meant that his 71 was nowhere near good enough to compete with the victor: "He shot 65 to beat me. I had a guy who had never won (chasing me), and I thought if I shot par, that might have been good enough. But it didn't even come close."

"Everything kind of clicked...It was just one of those days," indicated a very level-headed Sluman, who proclaimed in his very low-key way that he would probably celebrate with a couple of beers. His win meant that for the seventh consecutive week, the US tour had seen a first-time professional winner, and Sluman became the 17th different golfer to have won a major in the last 17 events. Times they were a changing, as it now seemed possible for the majors to be shared out amongst the many solid professionals rather than the few greats of past years.

The next winner of a major would stop this run of variety, but for now Nick Faldo cut a frustrated figure as he departed US shores. "I'm simply fed up and my putter will not be flying back first class with me," uttered Faldo, who ended up in a tie for fourth with Tom Kite on five-under, one shot behind Nakajima. The "Faldo fails again" headline in the Daily Express was a little harsh, after all he had now finished in the top four in his last three majors, but maybe this was a reflection of the disappointment felt for Faldo, rather than a dig at him? Faldo's consistency would be rewarded the following April, with an end to his 1988 play-off angst and near things in majors, via a little assistance from Scott Hoch.

Sluman of course never did add to his major tally, joining the likes of Rogers, Stadler, Sutton, Tway, Mize, Simpson and Calcavecchia, as a one-time major winner from America in the 1980s. Yet few could doubt that Sluman deserved his moment in the sun, as for one week, and one weekend in particular, he won his first tournament, and a major championship at that. Many better players may have tried and failed to join the ranks of major winners, but Sluman can proudly boast to be in that club, and regardless of what anyone thinks, that is what really matters.

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