Jeff Sluman didn’t lose a ball in the final round en route to winning the 70th PGA Championship, but he did lose a note from Jack Nicklaus.
The Golden Bear missed the cut at Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Oklahoma, but stuck around to do television for ABC Sports and jotted a congratulatory note to Sluman, who not only won his first major but his first PGA Tour title 35 years ago.
“Here’s one of my all-time heroes saying how great I did,” Sluman recalled. “Your first win, they’re pulling you in a million directions, come over here and hold the trophy, do this interview. They physically gave me a check out of a checking book for $160,000. You had to sign the back of it. That’s one of the unique things I remember. Well, in all the hubbub, I lost the note. The following week I went up to Jack and thanked him for the note and said, ‘Jack, I hate to ask you this but any chance you remember what you wrote and would jot it down again?’ Kind of a unique request. I just wanted it for my personal scrapbook. He was very kind and did.”
Sluman, a longtime Oak Hill Country Club member who estimated he’s played between 300-400 rounds at the host of the 105th PGA Championship, will be working on the broadcast team instead of playing. He was born in September of 1957 and raised in Greece – not the country but rather the town in Monroe Country and suburb of Rochester, New York. He still recalls his father taking him to a practice round for the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill and parking on one of the fairways of the West Course before watching childhood favorites Al Geiberger and Roberto de Vicenzo and trail after Arnold Palmer, who his dad supported.
“I got out of the car and remember saying, ‘Dad, we’re parking on fairways that are better than the greens we play on,’ He said, ‘Son, this is what real golf is.’ We were muni players. It still actually exists; Oak Orchard CC, which was a 45-minute drive from where we lived, near Albion, New York.”
Sluman grew up playing golf at Craig Hill Country Club (now known as Deerfield) and quickly became known as one of the top junior athletes in the Rochester area. His father, George, and older brother, Brad, were also low-handicap golfers, and helped guide a young Sluman, who won the Rochester District Golf Association’s (RDGA) Boys’ Sub-Junior Championship in 1971 at Durand Eastman Golf Course. He was also an impressive bowler in his youth, having competed in Rochester Junior Bowling Association leagues.
At 14, he recorded his first hole-in-one at Rochester’s Ridgemont Country Club, and qualified for the 1975 U.S. Junior Amateur. Locally, Sluman won the Rochester men’s district championship in 1977 and the New York State amateur title in 1978. He attended Tennessee Tech for one year and Monroe Community College in Rochester for another before transferring to Florida State. He turned pro in 1980, won just $13,643 as a PGA Tour rookie in 1983 and lost his card before regaining it the following year. He can recount nights spent in YMCA’s in far-flung places such as Singapore for $4 a night.
“If I didn’t make it by 1984, I decided it may be time to throw in the towel,” Sluman said.
But he stuck with it and started to show promise, earning more than $100,000 in 1984. Yet he arrived at the 70th PGA Championship, held August 11-14, 1988, north of Oklahoma City, winless in six years on Tour. Sluman flew under the radar all week carding rounds of 69-70-68, three strokes off the pace set by Paul Azinger.
Those rounds were lost in the flurry of scoring records on the usually severe Pete Dye-designed course, which was weakened by soft greens and a lack of wind. Bob Gilder set a course record of 66 on the first day; club pro Jay Overton tied that, and Dave Rummells, a journeyman pro, established a new one with his 64 on Friday. Saturday, Azinger made a hole-in-one to take a one-stroke lead over Rummells going into Sunday’s round.
That week, Sluman stayed in the guest house of fellow pro Willie Wood, who lived across the street from the golf course. On Saturday night, Sluman turned on the TV in his room and watched the local telecast, which previewed the final round and failed to mention his name even though he was in the thick of the trophy hunt. Playing in the penultimate pairing on Sunday, Sluman went into the final round with a chip on his shoulder.
“I kind of sat there and just scratched my head and said, ‘Jeez, I’m sitting there in third. Not that they’re supposed to say anything about me, but they’re at least supposed to mention my name.’ I was a little honked off.”
“He’s a little mighty mite, but he could really play,” said Craig Harmon, Oak Hill’s longtime head professional, who began coaching Sluman when he was about 18. “He was driven by the fact that everybody thought he was too small. But he was a little bulldog.”
Azinger, who began Sunday’s round with a 10-foot birdie putt to expand his lead to three, never could get comfortable. After the first birdie, he missed the green on four of his next five holes and fell behind for keeps. The turning point of the championship came early in the final round at the fifth hole, a sweeping 590-yard par-5 completely bordered on the left by water and on the right by scrub trees. Here, Sluman smacked a driver and a 4-iron to within 115 yards of a tiny, peninsula green. He pulled out his pitching wedge, but put it back in favor of a sand wedge. He then lofted a shot that bounced twice and rolled in for eagle to vault him to 9 under.
“It was the first time ever in 95-degree heat that I had chills going up and down my entire body,” Sluman said.
Azinger made bogey at the same hole and the three-shot swing was the springboard to a career-defining win for Sluman. He hit his first 10 greens in regulation, picking up birdies on No. 10 with a 20-foot putt and No. 12 when he stiffed an 8-iron. His only bogey was on the 13th hole, and he came back with a crucial 15-foot par putt at No. 14 and posted a 72-hole aggregate of 12-under 272. Sluman threw the ball in the crowd but otherwise reacted just as he had all day—with a little right-fisted pump, a touch of his visor, a nod, a tight-lipped smile. His 65 equaled the record for low final round by a PGA champion, set by David Graham in 1979.
Sluman went on to win six PGA Tour titles in all and six more times on PGA Tour Champions after turning 50. In 2019, he joined a group of 21 players who’ve played in 1,000 PGA Tour events, with the likes of Arnold Palmer, Hale Irwin and Tom Kite. And he’s not done yet.
“I’m not playing full-time anymore. I’m doing 15 events. Did that in 2021 and this year,” Sluman explained in late 2022. “I played 100 events in a row at one point. I took a week off and everyone called me and thought I was hurt. I said, ‘No, I just got tired of hearing I had played in 100 in a row.’ ”
But of the more than the thousand times Sluman has teed it up in competition, none was sweeter than his win at the 1988 PGA Championship.
“You talk about Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont to win the (U.S.) Open, or Jack Nicklaus’ 65 to win the Masters in ’86, but Jeff Sluman’s round today had to be one of the greatest,” Azinger said on that fateful day.
If ever the little bulldog needs a reminder of the peak of his greatness, all Sluman has to do is look at Nicklaus’s note, which he saved and framed, and he’ll know that he once played like a giant.