Gorman: Not winning Sluman's only mistake
Jeff Sluman covered his face with his hands, masking the anguish that accompanied the fate of his putt.
This was Sluman's best shot to win a sudden-death playoff for the Senior Players championship. Instead, he was left to die slowly.
It was a gorgeous putt, set up by a beautiful approach, if Sluman did say so himself. Somehow, to everyone's surprise, the ball evaded the cup.
“I'm not going to hit a better putt than that,” Sluman said. “It just didn't go in.”
If Sluman thought the putt was going in, it was only because so did everyone else at Fox Chapel Golf Course.
“Including Bernhard,” Sluman said of Bernhard Langer, who won the Senior Players on Sunday on the second playoff hole. “He couldn't believe it didn't go in, also.”
Sluman entered the final round five strokes behind Langer, the Champions Tour points leader, and two off Kenny Perry, who was trying to become the first to win back-to-back Senior Players championships since Arnold Palmer in 1984-85.
It would require Sluman to play a near-perfect round while hoping that Langer, a Hall of Famer, would falter.
And it almost happened.
Three times Sluman had a chance to win on that 18th green. Twice, he missed a birdie putt — from 12 to 14 feet in regulation and 8 to 10 feet on the first playoff hole — that would have finished off the two-time Masters champion.
Who could blame Sluman if, approaching the shot to win in regulation, he had a flashback to the 1987 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass?
It was on that second playoff hole that Sluman stood over a 6-foot putt on the famous 17th island green for birdie and the PGA Tour win — along with a $180,000 check, Masters invitation and 10-year exemption — when he heard a splash.
It was Hal Valdes, a 20-year-old student at Florida State (coincidentally, Sluman's alma mater), jumping into the lake to make good on a $250 bet. Sluman backed off to compose himself amid the commotion, then missed the putt. He made bogey on the third playoff hole, losing to Sandy Lyle.
Sluman mentioned that moment when asked if anything stuck in his craw, first apologizing for calling Valdes a “moron” and then correcting himself to say Valdes called himself that in a letter of apology.
“If he would've waited 10 seconds,” Sluman said, “I would have joined him.”
Instead of a splash, this time Sluman heard a roar. Not that it could save him from drowning.
Where Langer bogeyed Nos. 4, 7 and 10 and double-bogeyed the 12th to let his lead slip away, Sluman had five birdies Sunday and no bogeys over the final 29 holes to take a one-stroke lead.
Then, Langer made a 50-foot putt on No. 17, one that broke 4 feet, causing a roar that reverberated across the course to tie it at 15-under-par 265.
“You know, in golf, you always expect your opponent to make the shot, hole out, make the long putt, do something,” Sluman, 57, said. “You know, we're the best players in the world 50 and over, and if you look at Bernhard's record, he doesn't make many mistakes. He's a fierce competitor.
“I didn't know whether it was Russ (Cochran), Kenny or Bernhard, but I felt like with the roar, you can kind of tell that somebody made something from a good distance for birdie. It wasn't a par roar, let's put it that way.”
Langer knew his shot could have an effect on Sluman, who was in a group ahead of the final threesome.
“You know something spectacular happened,” Langer said. “He just didn't know who it was, I suppose, at the time.”
That it was Langer, the German who plays as impeccably as he dresses, was the worst possible news. Sluman couldn't afford any mistakes. Worse, he'd already made the costliest mistake, by not finishing off Langer when he had the chance.
“Just the way it is,” Sluman said. “You've got to play hard every single shot, and I did that this week. When the tournament's over and you recap it in your mind, I did everything that I could. Got into a playoff and lost on the 74th hole.
“But, you know, I'm not going to rue about it or anything. I'm just going to go on and say I performed well. I performed well under pressure.”
Just not well enough to win.