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Flowin' IN THE Wind
John Garrity
June 12, 2000
It may get gusty at Pebble Beach next weekend, so players would do well to study Jeff Sluman's gale-taming finish at the '92 Open
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June 12, 2000

Flowin' In The Wind

It may get gusty at Pebble Beach next weekend, so players would do well to study Jeff Sluman's gale-taming finish at the '92 Open

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The 3rd hole at the Pebble Beach Golf Links is a dogleg-left par-4 that, on a windy day, serves as a sort of mud room for the holes that follow. In the final round of the 1992 U.S. Open, Jeff Sluman and his caddie, Tony Navarro, stood in the tree-sheltered 3rd fairway, debating what club to use to cover the 125 yards to the pin. Navarro recommended an eight-iron. Sluman, observing that the flag up on the green was tugging the flag-stick into the shape of a parenthesis, wanted to hit an easy six.

"We settled on a seven," Sluman said recently. "I burned it in there, and...and...." His eyes got wide and his mouth gaped in disbelief, the way they did eight years ago, when an unseen hand snatched his golf ball in midair and dropped it on the fairway, short of the green. Turning to Navarro, Sluman said, "Holy smoke!" It wasn't until they approached the green that they caught the full brunt of the sea wind. Sluman's visor began to vibrate like the reed of a baritone sax, and Navarro's caddie bib ballooned like a parasail. "It felt like Mike Tyson had hit you in the stomach," Sluman says. "That's when we knew."

Actually, they only knew the half of it. They knew that an already difficult U.S. Open setup, replete with deep rough, narrow fairways and small, rock-hard greens, had plunged into self-parody. As the skies cleared and the wind accelerated that Sunday morning, balls blew off cliffs, bounced over greens and behaved like boomerangs. Three early starters broke par—Colin Montgomerie, Nick Price and Tray Tyner—but those who teed off at noon or later faced steady winds of 40 mph or more. The third-round leader, Gil Morgan, would shoot a nine-over-par 81; the 1987 U.S. Open champion, Scott Simpson, would sky to an 88; and 18 other players would score 80 or above, including defending champion Payne Stewart. Jack Nicklaus, watching from the shelter of an ABC-TV booth, said, "The best players in the world are having a horrible time. You just can't play under the conditions we're having."

Then there was the half that Sluman and Navarro didn't know: Sluman was about to play one of the greatest rounds in U.S. Open history, and furthermore, this round—a one-under-par 71—would get about as much attention as a sweeps-week documentary on sea horses. Ask a golf expert who finished second to Tom Kite in '92, and you'll probably get "Monty" for an answer. That's because Montgomerie, at even par for the tournament, was the leader in the clubhouse for two hours.

But no, the runner-up was Sluman. Like a stealth golfer, the 1988 PGA champion flew under the TV cameras for most of the afternoon, making par after improbable par on holes that should have been closed and barricaded. "We didn't understand how great a round it was because we were moving with the gallery following Jeff," says George Sluman, the golfer's father. But Navarro, who caddied for Greg Norman when the Shark won his second British Open, in '93, rates Sluman's finish in the '92 Open as the best round he has shared in his career.

Since the wind might rise again when the pros return to Pebble next week for the millennial Open, it's instructive to look back on Sluman's round. He made one bogey, two birdies and 15 pars, and it goes without saying that he got a lucky bounce or two. But Sluman is practically a prototype of the golfer who can play Pebble in the wind. He's low to the ground, for one thing; at 5'7" and 140 pounds, he can maintain his balance in gusts. He's comfortable hitting low-trajectory shots, the kind that bore under the wind. He has a superb short game; in last year's Tour stats, he was first in sand save percentage.

By '92 Sluman was also quite familiar with Monterey Peninsula conditions (he had lost a sudden-death AT&T Pro-Am playoff to Mark O'Meara four months earlier) and had been tested under major-championship pressure (he shot a final-round 65 to win the '88 PGA at Oak Tree by three strokes). "I always felt I had a good feel for Pebble Beach and understood how-to play it," he says. Then he shrugs. "In wind like that you have in he dead-flushing it to have any kind of chance."

So without further ado, let's go to the highlight tape and review the remarkable shots that Sluman.... What's that? Oh, yeah. Sluman's front-nine heroics never got on the air. Which is too bad, because on the 4th hole, a short par-4 that runs along Stillwater Cove, Sluman made a highlight-reel recovery. He hit his approach into the right-front bunker. "I had virtually no shot from a downhill lie," he recalls, "but I hit the best bunker shot in the world, two inches from the hole." The tap-in par kept him at one under for the round and tournament, three behind Morgan, who was just teeing off.

Two holes later, Sluman got another measure of the wind. Having climbed the steep hill to the headland on the par-5 6th hole, he and Navarro couldn't find his second shot. Puzzled, they looked back toward the tee, and there was the ball, 20 yards behind them. After a par there, they stepped onto the platform tee of the par-3 7th, which was fully exposed to the gale. In calm conditions the 112-yard shot is a half-swing flick with a wedge, but on this wild Sunday the world's best golfers were spraying six-irons and seven-irons in a fan-shaped pattern. Sluman's tee shot missed to the right and dropped in deep rough between a sand bunker and the tiny green, 25 feet from the shivering flagstick.

"I thought I had an unplayable lie," Sluman says. "It was in a hole left by an old drain or something." A sympathetic rules official agreed that it was a rotten lie, patently unfair and all that, but he said that Sluman could get no relief. "Ah, what the heck," the golfer told his caddie. He took a big swing with his sand wedge, gouged the ball out and watched in wonder as it floated onto the green and trickled down toward the hole, stopping an inch short.

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