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Sluman’s homecoming sparks fond golf memories

scottteaser-215x160Jeff Sluman’s return to Rochester this week for the final golf tournament he’ll ever play at Oak Hill Country Club conjured remembrances of swings past. During an illustrious career—highlighted by a dozen professional wins, including the 1988 PGA Championship—the 61-year-old Greece, N.Y. native has struck millions of balls, but it’s a ball struck by someone else that may have had the greatest impact on him. Literally and figuratively.

The shot that pops into Sluman’s head was one that grazed off his head. A gimme putt to the right, and this week-long celebration of a hometown hero at the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship might never have occurred. Instead, the Greece Arcadia High School and Monroe Community College alum might have wound up pursuing a fulltime career in finance. Sluman would have been accumulating the green anonymously, instead of shooting for the greens in the public eye.

Flash back to 1984. He had just lost his PGA card, and was forced to return to Q-School and play in competitive tournaments against scores of like-minded golfers scrambling to make their big-league dreams come true. At age 27, Sluman was at a make-or-break point in his life. Either he would get back on the PGA Tour ASAP, or he’d get on with his life. During a three-round qualifying tournament on a tough, Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Murrieta, Calif., Sluman shot lights out in the opening rounds, firing two scores in the mid-60s.

“There is absolutely no pressure on me at that point because the cushion is huge,’’ he recalled recently via phone. “I can go out and shoot a 93 in the final round, and I’ll still advance to the national qualifying tournament.”

After completing the first hole in the third round, Sluman was sitting in his cart when someone yelled “fore!” The warning came too late for him to react, as the errant iron shot glanced off the back of his left ear and rattled around in his cart. Sluman was stunned and angry. Thirty-five years later, he realizes how lucky he was.

“Four inches to the right, and my career might have been over,’’ said Sluman, who went on to complete that round and earn back his card. “If it hits me in the back of the head it wasn’t going to kill me, but I probably am in no condition to play 18 holes that day, and then I would have been back to ground zero, scratching and clawing to get myself back into position to qualify once more. I might have decided at that point that enough was enough; that I didn’t want to spend another year chasing this. And look what I would have missed out on.”

He would have missed out on quite a ride—a ride that’s coming full circle this week at Oak Hill. Sluman vividly remembers the first time he set foot on the world-renowned, Donald Ross-designed golf course. It was the summer of 1968, and he was a wide-eyed 10-year-old accompanying his dad for a U.S. Open practice round in hopes of catching glimpses of Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus in their primes. Sluman recalled how spectators’ cars were being parking on the West Course fairways.

“That would never happen today,’’ he said, chuckling. He also remembered marveling to his father how Oak Hill’s meticulously manicured fairways were in better shape than the greens the Slumans played on at their home course, 25 minutes to the northwest, in Greece.

“I left that day dreaming about what it would be like to play Oak Hill someday,’’ Sluman said.

As it turned out, he’s played the famed East Course at least 500 times through the years, and it never gets old. Although he’s lived in Chicago and Florida for several decades, Oak Hill will always be his golf home. That he would regard it as such is understandable because it’s the place where his dream really did take flight like a Titleist off a tee. Sluman has enjoyed some of his greatest highs there, including the evening three years ago when he joined the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Nancy Lopez, Bob Hope and Ben Hogan on the Hill of Fame that rings Oak Hill’s iconic 13th hole. Perhaps the only thing that might top having a plaque affixed to one of the course’s majestic oak trees would be to see his name atop the leaderboard this Sunday evening.

“Regardless, how the week goes, it’s going to emotional, and that’s how it should be,’’ said Sluman, whose best finish on the Champions Tour this season was a tie for sixth at last month’s Mitsubishi Electric Classic. “I might come across as a pretty stoic guy during tournaments, but I’m really a very emotional guy beneath that cool exterior. And it’s going to be hard to keep those emotions in check tournament week, given the circumstances of being back home.”

It was difficult for him to hold everything together the last time he played in the Senior PGA at Oak Hill in 2008, but he did, and wound up playing himself into the final day threesome with Bernhard Langer and eventual winner Jay Haas. Although his 1988 PGA Championship victory was his professional zenith because it was his only win in a major, Sluman rates his Senior PGA Championship performance 20 years later as his top personal highlight in golf.

“I had always wanted to play well at my home course in front of the people who had supported me from day one, but I never had,’’ he said. “So, when I was finally able to put together a contending performance in front of family and friends, that was extra special.”

He had hoped to take advantage of his home course advantage at the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill, but an emergency appendectomy six weeks before that major weakened him and he missed the cut. In the 2003 PGA at the Pittsford course, he simply didn’t play well, and missed the cut again.

“I left that PGA so disappointed, figuring that was it—I’d never get a chance to play another tournament at Oak Hill,’’ he said. “But then came the announcement that the Senior PGA Championship was coming to Rochester, so I wound up getting another chance.”

He seized that opportunity, and he finished tied for ninth. Many figured Sluman would return to Oak HIll for the 2013 PGA Championship because, as a former champion, he would have received an exemption. But he opted not to.

“When I turned 50, I decided to leave the regular PGA Tour and focus my energies on the Champions (Senior) Tour full-time,’’ Sluman explained. “The PGA was no longer my tour, and I didn’t think it was right for me to take a spot that could be used by a young, up-and-coming golfer trying to establish his career. So what if I finished 30th and they sent me a check. I had my day in the sun on that tour. I thought it was better to give an upstart the opportunity.”

Although this week marks Sluman’s final competitive tournament at Oak Hill, it won’t mark the end of his relationship with the club. Or the future majors it will host, including the 2023 PGA Championship. Working with legendary golf architect Andrew Green, Sluman will help redesign the East Course, bringing it closer to Ross’ original plans, while also taking into account the skills of modern professional golfers who are driving the ball much farther than previous generations.

“Andrew is the brains behind this,’’ Sluman said. “His redo of Inverness (a Ross course in Toledo, Ohio) is considered by many the best remake ever of a classic course. And I think he’ll work his same magic at Oak Hill. I’m just there to provide the eyes and perspective of a professional golfer who has played the course hundreds of times and knows all the little nuances and how they can impact play.’’

The makeover will occur between the end of this year’s tournament and next May, and it will be more subtle than extreme.

“To use a sports analogy, our goal is to be like referees at a football or basketball game that you don’t really notice,’’ Sluman said. “When members tee it up next year around this time, they’ll know something’s different—especially the new three holes—but for the most part the changes will be so nuanced it will seem in many respects just like it was.”

Sluman will be back to test it out himself. The homecomings are sure to prompt more reflections about his remarkable career, including that time he came, oh, so close to having his dream end on a shot by someone else.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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