The PGA Championship
Jeff Sluman
Jeff Sluman hits off the 12th tee during the first round of the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine Nat'l G.C.

Hometown hero hopes to make good

Rochester's Sluman looks to find game in front of the home folks at 85th PGA Championship

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) -- The trick for Jeff Sluman is to remind himself that the PGA Championship is just like any of the other 57 majors he has played, and Oak Hill Country Club is just another golf course.

If Monday was any indication, that won't be easy.

The plan was to squeeze in nine holes before his 2 p.m. interview, but it took Sluman more than an hour to get from the practice green to the range to the first tee. His caddie sat on a cooler on the tee, waving other players through, knowing this would happen.

Sluman grew up in Rochester.

He was in awe of Oak Hill the first time he set foot on the fabled Donald Ross course as an 11-year-old watching the 1968 U.S. Open won by Lee Trevino.

The club gave him playing privileges when he turned pro.

"I've played hundreds of times out here, and coming in to register, seeing all the members, that's an experience you don't have that often when you go to a major," Sluman said. "So, it's a special week for me. I'm just going to enjoy it."

This is no time for a ceremonial stroll at Oak Hill.

Sluman is coming off his worst slump in years at one of the worst times.

He is 13th in the standings for the Presidents Cup team, a major goal at the start of the season. Ten players qualify after this week, and U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus is likely to take the next two players on the list as his two picks.

Sluman missed five straight cuts -- starting with the U.S. Open and ending with the British Open -- before tying for 12th in the Buick Open two weeks ago.

This also is the final major of the year, and opportunity starts to become rare at Sluman's age -- a month short of 46.

"This is a very important tournament for me," Sluman said. "This is really the last time I'm going to play legitimately in front of everybody in my hometown. But I've got to get my work done, and I've got to do what I normally do when I go to a tournament."

He doesn't normally get a standing ovation for walking onto the practice range, and another for showing up on the first tee.

He doesn't always hear so many people shout his name. Normal is not the young woman wanting an autograph for the guy who mows her lawn because "you're his favorite player."

Under the circumstances, has he even allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to win a major championship in his back yard?

"Not in the least," Sluman said. "If you've got a chance going into Sunday, then your mind might wander a little bit, but you can't let it wander out there. If you do, you're going to be making bogey after bogey.

"It would be the greatest experience of my life if something like that happened, but I'm not really going to think about it too much."

Sluman has other things to worry about -- his game, for one thing.

He was having a solid year when his short game vanished at an inopportune time. Sluman was also a hometown favorite at the U.S. Open because he is one of the few PGA Tour players who lives in Chicago.

Olympia Fields wasn't quite the same as Oak Hill. Sluman rarely played the south Chicago course, and even had to call his own golf club to get directions. Still, he had his share of support and wound up missing the cut.

Sluman reached his nadir with his fifth weekend off at the British Open. The only positive that came from Royal St. George's was a session with psychology Bob Rotella, who told him to quit worrying about mechanics and start seeing the putts go in.

"He wants you to putt like you're a 10-year-old kid," Sluman said. "When you were 10, what were you thinking about? Just trying to make it. You weren't worried about your stroke, you weren't worried about how far it went by or whatever. You just tried to make it. It helped quite a bit."

He didn't make everything at the Buick Open, but Sluman missed only six greens all week, and that kind of game should help immensely at Oak Hill.

The course looks like a typical U.S. Open course, with fairways only 23 yards wide on average and rough that could hide a head of cabbage.

Tiger Woods played his first practice round Monday. Asked what he thought, Woods replied, "Have you see the rough around the greens? Not a lot of creativity there."

By that, Woods means the only option is to grab the 60-degree wedge, hack and hope.

That's why Sluman believes he has a good chance this week to win the PGA Championship 15 years after he won his first one at Oak Tree in Oklahoma.

"I'm playing very well tee-to-green, which is what you're going to need here," he said.

No telling where that might take him. If he makes enough putts, it could give him the greatest experience of his life.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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