Tom Pernice Jr. had just stuck his approach to within 8 feet of the pin on the 18th green Sunday when Hollis Cavner’s walkie-talkie squawked. Jeff Sluman was on the other end, and not because he wanted to brag about shooting a 62 in the final round of the 3M Championship.
Sluman had been warming up, anticipating a possible playoff. Pernice’s shot prompted Sluman to tell Cavner, the executive director of the tournament, that he was heading to the airport.
Pernice made sure Sluman made his flight, two-putting for birdie to win and leaving Sluman in the strange position of regretting a final-round 62. “Obviously, I knew it was … I mean, it had a chance to be … a very special day,” Sluman said.
Sluman is a testament to a number of golfing truths: Skill trumps size. You can play the game for a lifetime. “Luck” can be a four-letter word.
He is 5-7 and 140 pounds. There are long putters with broader shoulders. You could fit him in a golf bag and still have room for an oversized driver and a set of wedges.
He has also won a major and made more than $25 million, even though if you saw him crossing the street, you’d want to wrap a blanket around his shoulders and see him to safety.
Sunday, Sluman birdied nine of the first 10 holes, and did so without hitting a single spectacular shot. He didn’t hole out from the fairway or bunker. He made the world’s hardest game look simple as checkers, shooting a tournament-record 28 on the front nine.
On the 18th tee, he figured he would need a birdie on 18 to win or force a playoff. Sluman pounded his drive down the middle, and thought about attacking the flag until he reached his ball. “After that drive, it was not what I was hoping to see,” Sluman said. “It was right in the middle of a sand divot.”
Sluman faced a 191-yard shot over water. He took an extra club and moved the ball up in his stance, and hoped for the best. His 4-iron hugged the left, elevated side of the green and scooted into the rough. He chipped downhill, leaving the kind of short putt he had been making all day … and missed left.
“It’s just the way golf is,” he said. “There are divots out there and everybody gets into them, and I got into the first one this week. I wish I could say I was oh-for the week, but I wasn’t. So priority one was getting it over the water.”
For 10 holes, Sluman played as if bunkers, hazards, wind and nerves did not exist. This is a guy who shot a 65 on Sunday to win a major, the 1988 PGA Championship, so a flawless round shouldn’t surprise. But because this is golf, flawless rounds always do.
“Any one of us is capable of doing that,” he said. “There are so many great players out here and we’ve all done it occasionally in our careers. It seems very easy when you’re doing it. I’ve been on the receiving end a few times when other guys have done it. You’re watching guys making brides on every other hole and wonder how they’re doing it.
“When it happens to you, you’re just going along with the flow and the reading of putts looks perfect.”
Maybe only golfers speak of competitive success in the passive voice, as if it was an out-of-body experience. They hit thousands of balls on the range and play hundreds of competitive rounds, waiting for all 14 clubs to behave and their biorhythms to align, and one day it happens and they’re not sure why it did.
“There are days it feels easy, and then there are days, two days later, when it feels like you’ve never played the game,” Sluman said. “That’s just golf, really. No rhyme or reason. It has no memory. The golf ball doesn’t know who you are, teeing it up.”
Sluman’s golf ball obeyed his commands for 17 holes, then ensured he would make his flight home.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org