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Heath Slocum made the most of his opportunity Thursday at Royal Birkdale, shooting a respectable 73 in very difficult conditions. (Photo: Getty Images)

Slocum's prayers answered with Taniguchi's withdrawal

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When Heath Slocum got the call he had been waiting for, he had less that 30 minutes to warm up and make it to the first tee Thursday morning. But such is life for an alternate hoping just to get in the field.

By Helen Ross, Chief of Correspondents

SOUTHPORT, England -- All along, Heath Slocum figured Padraig Harrington was his best shot.

The American had read the news reports, the ones that said Harrington's right wrist was was bothering him so much the defending champion didn't know whether he would be able to play in the 137th Open Championship. The dire predictions put the probability of Harrington competing at 50-50 or worse.

As the first alternate, Slocum had more than a passing interest in what might transpire. So when he saw the Irishman hitting balls on the range Thursday morning, Slocum didn't have much hope.

"I hit -- it was not even close to a full warm up," Slocum said. "He looked like he was swinging quite well, so I just said, 'It's raining, it's cold, and if I get in, great, then I'll go from here.' But I wasn't going to get wet out there. I knew it had the potential to be a very long day."

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So Slocum went back to the players dining area to dry off and wait some more. To be honest, he said, "I didn't figure I had much of a chance at that point." At about 9:15 a.m. local time, though, Slocum got the phone call he had awaited since he flew over on the charter from the John Deere Classic on Sunday night.

"There's been a withdrawal and you've got the 9:42 (tee time)," Slocum recalled the voice on the other end of the phone saying. "I didn't ask who. All I know is I headed to the range, hit a few more (balls)."

For the record, Slocum's spot in his first Open Championship came courtesy of Toru Taniguchi, who left due to a bad back. He had less than 30 minutes to warm up and get to the first tee, then proceeded to shoot a more-than-respectable 73 on a miserable day at Royal Birkdale.

"It was an awesome experience," the two-time PGA TOUR champion said. "I'll tell you, just growing up and watching the golf course, the weather, and I tee it up and I hadn't seen a rain drop until I got here this morning. It was about exactly how I imagined it could be. I mean, it rained sideways. I was really, really cold."

Next time, Slocum will be better prepared. He brought rain gear and golf balls but the softspoken Southerner was light on sweaters, turtlenecks and other pieces to layer against the chill.

"I didn't pack appropriately," Slocum admitted. "I was actually just so happy to be playing in the field."

Slocum rose at 5 a.m. Thursday and was at the course by 6 to start his vigil. He had planned to wait until Jonathan Lomas, Yoshinobu Tsukada and Peter Appleyard teed off at 4:21 p.m. in the day's final group. In fact, regardless of what happened, he didn't have a return flight booked until Friday -- and now he'll have to change that one, too. Gladly, of course.

A year ago, Slocum started the Open week as the fifth alternate, but he opted not to fly over. When he moved to first alternate as of last Friday, though, Slocum knew he was coming, particularly with the Sunday night charter that the John Deere Classic provided to take the players across the pond.

Also contributing to his decision was the fact that the R&A affords the first four alternates the same courtesies afforded to the players in the championship. So Slocum had a locker. He got to play practice rounds, two to be exact, and work on his game as much as he liked, as well.

"The R&A were very gracious," Slocum said. "I don't think I would have come if I didn't have playing privileges just because I didn't imagine playing this place blind. It's hard enough just getting to play it twice."

Until Thursday, then, Slocum felt like he was getting ready to play in a golf tournament -- even if it was just his first Open Championship and only the seventh major of his career.

"It wasn't until honestly yesterday on the putting green that I'm seeing everybody kind of getting the final preparations," Slocum said. "I know how I treat a tournament. I was like, you know, a little bit saddened. I'm like, I'm not in this field and this sucks.

"It's funny because I was putting, and I was going through kind of a routine and I kind of cut it short and just said, you know what, I'm just done. I'm just going to go back and relax tonight. It was going to be an early morning. I just figured if I get in, great; if not, it's been a great experience. I got to play a great golf course for two days. I had never been over here before, so I was just going to treat it as a mini-vacation."

The vacation was cut short on Thursday, but Slocum knows he can visit England again. He got back to business quickly, too, making two birdies and five bogeys to finish just four strokes off the lead.

"There's a lot of golf left," said Slocum, who would have been playing in Milwaukee this week had he not gambled and come across the pond. "Obviously, like I said, I was happy to get in the field, and I played actually quite well today. It's just a hard golf course. I left a couple of shots out there, but everybody does."

And this time, he wasn't left behind, either.

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