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Sluman recovers from slow start to give hometown fans some hope
He spent the days leading up to his first Champions Tour major -- set in his hometown of Rochester -- interviewing with local reporters, catching up with old friends and trying to avoid pressure being heaped upon his shoulders.
By the time the homegrown product finally stepped up to the first tee on a drizzly, winter-like morning at the 69th Senior PGA Championship, he desperately wanted to play well for the local crowd -- something he hasn't done in the past -- and tightened up under pressure.
"When I get tight I usually hit just a fraction left," Sluman said. "Golf's a very challenging game at best, but when you really want something and try too hard, judging by my past experiences in Rochester, I haven't played very well."
While Sluman, 50, temporarily fell victim to nerves and the weather -- "(I hit) 3-wood on No. 1 off the snow and into the left trees," he joked -- he started to miss fairways.
"And, on this golf course, if you miss a bunch of fairways, you've got your work cut out for you," Sluman said.
He missed a 12-footer for par on the first hole and settled for bogey. On No. 8, his drive landed in the left rough but Sluman worked his second shot close to the green and pitched his third to 5 feet. His playing partners Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman were both on the same line and sank their putts, but Sluman's par try missed the hole.
"I was reaching to get the ball out of the hole and it just didn't go in," he said, taking his lumps again with another bogey.
At the ninth hole, a 418-yard par 4, he pulled his tee shot to the left and, after finding the green, two-putted for a "routine 5."
"So I made the turn at 3-over and I just thought it was not time to hit the panic button or anything," he said. "I just knew that I needed to relax and, regardless of the score that came out, just try and play the way I've been playing."
He'd been playing stellar on the Champions Tour leading up to the season's first major. Last Sunday at the Regions Charity Classic, Sluman made seven birdies in nine holes (including five in a row) and finished with a 64, the low round of the day.
Fortunately for him, Thursday-morning Sluman reverted back to Sunday-afternoon Sluman on the back nine.
He sank a 25-foot putt on No. 10 then took his birdie and ran with a newfound momentum. The temperatures started to rise but the wind began to pick up as he approached the 180-yard par-3 15th hole. He tucked a 5-iron close to the pin and sank a 6-foot putt for birdie there.
He circled another number on the card at No. 16, driving it down the middle of the fairway -- "this course is much easier when you hit the fairways," Sluman admitted -- knocking a wedge to 2 feet and sinking his short putt for birdie.
Suddenly, the spectators who came out to watch their prodigal son -- Sluman now lives near Chicago with his family -- had something to cheer about. Sluman had returned to even par, where he would remain for the round to finish with a 70.
Not that he paid much attention to the fans. Sluman tried to keep the blinders on as he maneuvered the challenging venue where he's never made the cut in two previous starts in major championships on the PGA TOUR.
"I certainly heard stuff, pulling for you, knock it in. You know, the usual kind of stuff, which is great to hear," Sluman said. "But I stayed pretty focused. I didn't see my brother or my nephew. Really, I kind of kept like you were looking down a bowling alley, just trying to keep focused."
As Norman watched his friend of more than 30 years take on Oak Hill, he remembered why he was a fan of the Rochester native.
"Sluey and I have been really good friends on the golf course for a long, long time," Norman said. "He's a nice guy to be around, number one, and (we were) just talking about things in general. We haven't seen each other in a long period of time. And he wondered what I was doing with my spare time, (but) I knew what he was doing -- he was out here playing golf."
And play golf he has. Even before his solo third at the Regions Charity Classic last week, Sluman had tied for 13th the week before. He was also runner-up at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in late April.
Despite how well he's played recently and his performance in the first round of the Senior PGA Championship, he's hesitant to even consider what a win would mean to him at Oak Hill Country Club.
"To me, that's almost like bad karma if you say what it would mean. I'm going to go out and try and compete the next three days and, if I have got a chance to win on Sunday, regardless of what happens, I'll take it that way as a great week," Sluman said. "But just playing well in front of your family and friends is a lot, means a lot to me."