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

June 12, 2000
June 12, 2000

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June 12, 2000

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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

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
flagstick into the shape of a parenthesis, wanted to hit an easy

This is an article from the June 12, 2000 issue Original Layout

"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 to be
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

"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.

Sluman's up-and-down didn't make it on the air, but Kite
produced its mirror image a short time later, pitching from long
grass on the other side of the 7th green. Kite's shot went into
the hole for birdie--the key stroke of his victory charge and
the most-played highlight of the '92 Open. Asked if it bothers
him that Kite's shot was played a million times and his didn't
even air, Sluman smiles. "That stuff has never bothered me," he

On to the so-called Cliffs of Doom holes. On number 8, Sluman
made what he calls a "routine par"--if any par can be routine
when fish and otters are practically raining on the fairway. On
number 9 he drove into the left rough and made his only bogey of
the day.

It was on the 426-yard 10th hole that Sluman most distinguished
himself. Player after player had tried to reach the green in
regulation, aiming his shot out over the sea and counting on the
wind to blow the ball back. Most of the balls ended up on the
beach or on the ice-plant-covered escarpment. ABC reported that
of the 14 players who immediately preceded Sluman, seven had
made double bogey and three had made triple bogey. "A
professional golfer's ego says, This is a par-4," Sluman says,
trying to explain the lemminglike behavior of his peers. "I've
hit a good drive. The yardage is right. If I hit a perfect shot,
I can get home."

Sluman's ego was more sensible, even though he had birdied the
hole the day before. His ball was in a good lie in the first cut
of the right rough, but Sluman told Navarro, "There's no way I'm
gonna hit that green in this wind." So he bumped a head-high
two-iron down the left side to a patch of fairway free of
trouble. From there he pitched to about six feet and sank the
putt for a par that was as good as an eagle. "Incredible," said
ABC's Steve Melnyk, noticing Sluman for the first time. "Smart

Sluman showed his resourcefulness again on the par-5 14th hole,
where his approach caromed off the firm green and into short
grass behind a scalped chipping area. Earlier in the week
Nicklaus had said that no chipping club could get the ball close
from there, so Sluman took his putter and rolled the ball up the
bank, onto the green and down near the hole. He then made a
five-footer for yet another par save. ("Putting in those
conditions is a lottery," he says. "Anything longer than 12
inches you can miss.")

By scrambling for pars while others were begging for bogeys,
Sluman had put himself into a second-place tie with Montgomerie,
three strokes behind Kite. Sluman refused even to glance at a
scoreboard--"I was totally focused," he says--but he knew. After
all, his playing partner, Jim Gallagher Jr., was shooting 83,
and for two hours Sluman had seen contenders hitting from the
beach and searching for balls in the ice plants. "As a golfer,
you have that intuition," he says. "I knew I had passed a lot of

In the end, he would pass everyone but Kite, whose final-round
72 took the Open trophy and is the highlight of a 19-win Tour
career. Ask Kite to comment on Sluman's round, however, and he
fixes you with a cold stare. "Ask Sluman," he says. "How would I
know what he was doing?"

Sluman, a sharp-witted man who withholds his bons mots from the
press for fear of saying something inappropriate, is more
gracious. Pointing out that Kite drove his ball on the final
hole to the ocean side of the big cypress tree in the fairway,
Sluman says, "That was a wonderful test of nerves and composure.
If you can come to the 18th hole at Pebble Beach with a two-shot
lead and drive it left of that tree, you deserve to be the U.S.
Open champion."

Not that Sluman's finish was lame. In a 35- to 40-mph crosswind,
he punched a nine-iron approach over the front bunker, and the
ball came to rest a foot from the hole. The gallery at the 18th
green, exercising rusty vocal chords, let out a roar. When
Sluman walked onto the green it was to chants of "Slu! Slu! Slu!"

Sluman's final-hole birdie gave him a 71 and made him the leader
in the clubhouse, but he felt more like a mugging victim than a
contender. "It was such a brutal day," he recalls. "I would like
to have been in a playoff, but I was so tired and worn out from
that round. I don't think either Tom or I wanted to play another
18 holes on Monday."

As it turned out, Kite held on for a two-shot victory, and
Sluman's round vanished from the collective memory--a curious
case of Monterey fog that has lasted almost a decade. "I know
what I did," Sluman says. "My family and friends know what I
did. That's enough for me."

But there's one small acknowledgment for which Sluman is still
waiting. On that fateful Sunday morning, he remembers,
soon-to-be PGA champion Paul Azinger sized up the rising wind
and said, "If anybody breaks par today, I'll quit the game."

Sluman, his smile widening to a grin, says, "I still ask Paul
when he's going to quit."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO ON KITE'S TAIL Sluman's final-round 71 wasn't enough to catch Kite (swinging), whose steady 72 clinched the championship.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SWEET AND LOW Sluman shows how to beat the wind: Go under it.
"It felt like Mike Tyson had hit you in the stomach," says
Sluman of the sea wind that blew on Pebble's 3rd green.
"Putting in those conditions is a lottery," Sluman says.
"Anything longer than 12 inches you can miss."