When Jeff Sluman, all 135 pounds of him, was whirled around in a bear hug by his beefy caddie, Rich Motacki, on the 18th green at Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Okla., Sunday, it was the first time all day he had been out of control. With 64 well-placed shots and one perfect sand wedge, Sluman had slain a monster golf course, put the coronation of Paul Azinger on hold and waltzed off with the PGA Championship, the last major of the year.
His final-round 65, which took him from three behind Azinger to a three-stroke victory, was hotter than the Oklahoma blast furnace it was played in. By making his first tournament win a major—just as Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino had done—Sluman can be known as someone other than the poor guy who lost the 1987 TPC when a spectator jumped into an adjacent lake while he was standing over what might have been the winning putt.
None of the winners of the year's first three majors ever threatened to make it two. Masters champion Sandy Lyle demurred, preferring to stay on his side of the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange finished 31st, and British Open winner Seve Ballesteros missed the cut.
"I would never put myself in their class," said Sluman of his fellow major winners, "but I guess this proves I can play this game a little bit myself."
August 21, 1988
Use of the diminutive suits the 5'7", 30-year-old Sluman, who until recently was still being asked for identification when he ordered a drink, and was mistaken for Tom Watson's younger brother when he went out to dinner with him earlier this year. Sluman and Willie Wood, who is a tad shorter, are the shortest players on the American Tour, and the two of them have been known to borrow each other's clothes.
Despite his size, it has been awhile since Sluman got sand kicked in his face. In his past three years on the Tour, he has developed the kind of complete, dependable game best appreciated by his peers. Sluman lost his playing card for a year after his rookie season in 1983, but since then he has steadily molded his swing into a model of power and economy. Last year he won $335,590, placing 27th on the money list. At Oak Tree he frequently outdrove such long-hitting playing partners as Payne Stewart and Nick Faldo while still managing to hit more fairways—44 out of 56—than the other top 15 finishers.
Sluman's game seems to work particularly well on the penal "target golf" courses designed by Pete Dye, of which Oak Tree is one. Punishing? Suffice it to say that Oak Tree is nicely summed up by a hangman's noose strung to a tree near the 16th green. After opening with rounds of 69-70-68, Sluman was behind only Azinger and Dave Rummells on entering the final round. Still, it seemed unlikely that he would land his first victory in a major. The line on Sluman said the round would find him grinding in pursuit of that which was lettered on his visor: PAYCHEX.
On Sunday morning it seemed as if the 28-year-old Azinger would make up for the major he gave away last year when he let Faldo win the British Open. After an opening 67, he took the lead on Friday with a 66 and held it on Saturday with a 71. During the third round he electrified the gallery by holing a 200-yard six-iron on the par-3 4th hole. He thrust his fist into the air with a leaping right hook, throwing his visor high among the surrounding trees, and finally slam-dunked his club into his bag. The hole in one, the third of four that would be shot during the tournament, gave him a four-stroke lead; however, he double-bogeyed the next hole, and by nightfall his lead was down to one.
Azinger seemed almost as pumped up when he birdied the 1st hole in the final round to take a three-stroke lead over a fading Rummells, his playing partner, and four over Sluman, who was one group ahead. "That's the most nervous I could get today, and I still made birdie," a confident Azinger said to a few spectators as he loped to the 2nd tee.
But Sluman birdied the 2nd to narrow the lead to three. Then on the 590-yard 5th hole, he sent a 115-yard shot with his sand wedge into the hole for an eagle 3. It was his own version of a hole in one, and just like that it put him only one behind Azinger. Instead of celebrating wildly, Sluman tossed his wedge aside and calmly high fived Motacki. "I saw what happened to Paul when he got so excited after his hole in one," said Sluman. When Azinger, unaware of Sluman's eagle, bogeyed the 5th and 6th while Sluman was holing a birdie putt on the 7th, he quickly fell two strokes behind.
"I was thinking, Well, the game is on," said Sluman, who didn't look at a scoreboard until the 15th hole.
Actually the game was over. Azinger never drew closer. On the back nine Sluman stayed in command with a 12-foot second putt for par on the 14th and an eight-foot putt for a closing birdie on the 15th, which upped his lead to four. Azinger birdied the par-5 16th, then nearly made another hole in one when his five-iron tee shot on the 200-yard 17th hit the flagstick and rolled 16 feet away. He sank the putt for another birdie. But when Sluman finished his round with a routine par, Azinger needed to hole out from the 18th fairway rough for an eagle to tie. Well, it had been happening all week, but Oak Tree was out of miracles. Azinger's approach landed in a bunker, he bogeyed, and Sluman won by three.
"I've given away one major and had one taken away," said Azinger, who admitted he was set back emotionally for several months after last year's British Open. "But this one won't nag at me. Jeff just played too good."
While Sluman's measured manner on the course could use some livening up, it should be mentioned that last year at Pensacola, it was he who commandeered a water-balloon launcher from the seventh floor of his hotel. "Jeff knows how to have a good time," said Wood. By the way, one of his targets on the beach below was a sunbathing Paul Azinger. "We missed," said Sluman. On Sunday he scored a direct hit.