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July 10, 2014

26 years after championship win, Sluman returns to Oak Tre

EDMOND —  Jeff Sluman is enjoying his return to Oak Tree National for the 2014 U. S. Senior Open Championship. But the 57-year-old New York native is having difficulty grasping the fact that it’s been 26 years since he won the 1988 PGA Championship, also hosted at Oak Tree National.

“I would have to say that I have probably changed more than the golf course, but I guess it would also be safe to say that both of us have matured. I know I have and it looks like the course has aged gracefully.

Sluman’s unlikely victory in his first visit to Oak Tree National still remains close to his heart because of how it played out.

“America was looking for its next golfing hero, someone to take up the mantle of a world leader like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson. And even though Curtis Strange had won the U.S. Open, there was a widespread fear that the shift of power in the golfing world was shifting toward the Europeans,” Sluman said.

“Not only had they won the past two Ryder Cups, but the ‘foreigners’ had won three of the majors that year, so they were definitely looking for a hero to carry the American hopes onto the golf course,” he added.

There was little reason that Sluman would be considered for such a role in the scorching hot August heat in Oklahoma in 1988. He was hardly an imposing figure, standing at just 5-7 in and weighing in at 148 pounds. Despite having played the professional game for eight years, he had yet to win a tournament on the U.S. tour.

But as all American eyes focused on the likes of Paul Azinger, Strange, Fred Couples and Lanny Wadkins, the 30-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., came in from the blindside to shock the world of golf.

“I remember the heat more than I remember the golf course. The temperatures were in the 100s and it was like playing in an oven. I remember the trees weren’t as plentiful and big as they are now,” Sluman recalled.

In sweltering conditions, Bob Gilder led after the first day, his 5-under total of 66 setting the early pace. Nick Faldo was just one shot behind, along with his rival from the 1987 Open, Azinger. Greg Norman managed to shoot 68 on his return from the wrist injury that had kept him out of the Open, with Sluman a shot back.

The fears of a European invasion subsided a little when only Nick Faldo and Sevvy Ballesteros remained in contention and soon Faldo was all alone as Ballesteros’ 75 meant that he missed the cut. 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,” wrote Martin Hardy in the Express.

Faldo remained, but his 71 left him five behind halfway leader Azinger. Sluman’s 70 gave him a lead of six shots, but for a period on 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.

Sluman and Rummels took advantage of the lack of movement from Azinger as both fired superb rounds of 68, leaving Rummels just one off the lead and Sluman three behind.

“I remember thinking, here I am playing some of the best golf of my career and I can’t get anywhere. Azinger was in a zone so I decided that I was 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.

As the final round began, Sluman sent his pitch toward the hole — his last-minute change of heart from a pitching wedge to a sand wedge proving crucial — as his ball rolled towards the hole thrillingly 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 held a two-shot lead in the final round of the final major of the season.

“I had never won a tournament and I shot a 76 when leading the Byron Nelson Classic after three rounds earlier in the year but that was not an option that day. Things were going too well,” he recalled.

“Everything kind of clicked. It was just one of those days,” said a very level-headed Sluman, who became the 17th different golfer to have won a major in the last 17 events in 1988.

He went on to capture the Tucson Chrysler Classic in 1997, the 1998 and 2002 Greater Milwaukee Open, the 1999 Sony Open in Hawaii and the 2001 BC Open. He was assistant captain of the 2012 USA Ryder Cup team. Sluman also had four wins on the Champions Tour.

“Yes, being back here brings back lots of memories, all good. But those memories are not going to put the golf ball in the hole. But it’s a joy and privilege to be here and I notice the heat hasn’t changed much in just over 25 years,” he laughed.

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Should the date for The World's Largest Garage Sale be changed from the third weekend in July to sometime in October to take advantage of cooler weather like we had this past weekend?

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