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Is It Just A Game?

By John M. Ross,
Heath Slocum
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Heath Slocum of Australia: One of the great stories from the game of golf. (Courtesy of Matt Muskovac)

Golf always has been an inspirational sport. Of course, its very foundation, based on integrity and fair play, virtually assures that. And over the years there have been enough exhilarating golf tales charging across this keyboard to fill a shelf or two of books in the library. But for reasons unknown - there might be something in the air - a whole series of them has occurred in the past fortnight.

Undoubtedly, the most uplifting is the never-say-never battle waged by Heath Slocum, a 27-year-old Australian who came here with dreams of playing on the PGA Tour. He prepped at South Alabama College, where he had a superb run with its golf team, winning the Sun Belt Conference title. His carefully plotted plan took him next to the Buy.com Tour, the preparatory circuit conducted by the PGA Tour for aspiring players. But disaster stopped him in his tracks.

Slocum was felled by ulcerative colitis, a disease of the lower colon that still holds many mysteries for the medical pundits. It is a very debilitating ailment, and after it struck in 1997, Heath was unable to swing a club for the next two years. His weight dropped from 150 pounds to 122, but he never gave up his dream. Barely able to walk at times, he'd still get to his bag, grip a club and take a few weak swings.

Suddenly, his luck changed as radically as it had in the first instance. His stepmother happened to mention Heath's sad plight to her doctor, and he responded immediately. He recommended a colleague who specialized in colitis, who immediately changed the medication Heath had been using with little success. There was no overnight miracle, but that was the first step on the road back.

"As I began to feel better," Slocum recalls, "I was sure I could get my game back if I worked real hard."

For almost two years, he worked real hard. And he got his game back better than ever.

Back on the Buy.com Tour, in early August, Slocum won his third tournament of the year at the Omaha Classic, and under the PGA Tour rules this entitled him to a "battlefield promotion." It gave him his PGA Tour card immediately, and it will take him through the 2002 season.

Slocum is only the second player since the minor league tour started to earn the instant promotion, and his winner's check of $94,500 brought his season total to $337,090 a record for that circuit.

Now, doesn't that make you feel good? But, wait, here's another.

Bobby Watkins has played in brother Lanny's shadow since the day he first put his hands on a golf club. Sure, he matched big brother by making the NCAA golf All-America two years in a row, but since he turned pro, 28 years ago, nothing. Indeed, he played in 777 tournaments on the PGA Tour and the Buy.com Tour and never once reached the winner's circle. Not once!

Reaching age 50 this year, he knew he had to try the PGA Senior Tour, where Lanny already was a winner. Over the years, Lanny had left him in the dust, winning 21 times on the Tour and becoming one of the game's superstars. But Bobby doesn't discourage easily.

Playing in his very first PGA Senior event by virtue of a generous sponsor's exemption Bobby finally grasped that long-sought victory in the Lightpath Long Island Classic. But he had to sweat for it right down to the last stroke.

Tied with Jay Sigel and Larry Nelson at the 72nd hole, Bobby went for broke on the tilted par-3. His tee ball scooted past the cup, but his 12-foot putt was true coming back and he had the one-stroke edge he needed. When neither of his opponents got the birdies they wanted, Bobby had his historic first.

It was really much more than his first. Oddly enough, he became the first player on the Senior Tour to win in his very first tournament since, yes, Lanny did it. And he became the youngest ever to win on the over-50 circuit. Needless to say, the winning check of $255,000 was his biggest payoff.

The full year's exemption for the Senior Tour, which came with the prize, might prove to be even more valuable. It will give him that one last chance to finally catch up with big brother, who has been something less than a ball of fire with the old-timers.

Of course, one of the most talked-about incidents of the year, and one that had nothing to do with heroics or stick-to-itness, was the caddie's boner in the British Open. It was a stunner.

You'll recall that Ian Woosnam, the pint-sized Welshman, came this close to acing the opening hole of the final round. The tap-in birdie put him one shot out of the lead and was precisely the right lift he needed in his desperate effort to make the Ryder Cup team one more time. But when he reached the 2nd tee, his caddie, Miles Byrne, sheepishly advised him that they had 15 clubs in the bag. Woosnam looked as if he had seen a ghost.

He recounted the clubs himself and then looked skyward, pleadingly: "You give a man a job to handle, and what does he do?"

Onlookers say they could see steam coming out of his ears!

Earlier at the practice tee, Woosnam had been trying out a new driver that he thought might help him cope better with the winds of Royal Lytham. He decided to stick with the one he had been using and indicated the other driver could go back to his locker. Byrne apparently tucked it into the bag when he gathered up their things and headed back to the clubhouse area.

It was still in the bag at the 1st tee, and when Woosnam played the first hole with one more club than the 14 he was entitled to, he had to take a two-shot penalty for the rules violation. Thus, instead of the uplifting start of a birdie, he now had a mind-jarring bogey.

It took several holes, and two additional bogies, before he could regain his composure. But the damage had been done. And it was costly. Instead of finishing second with 276, behind the ultimate winner, David Duval, the two-stroke penalty dropped him to a 278 and into a six-way tie for third. And the difference was over $312,000 in prize money. In the days that followed, the caddie's gaff got as much attention in the fans' Monday quarterbacking as did Duval's fine win. And there was considerable debate over what Woosnam should have done to the caddie. Indeed, Curtis Strange, commenting on the telecast, had an on-the-spot verdict.

"I'd have fired him right then and there even if I had to carry the bag the rest of the way myself."

Many agreed with him especially those who have a specific feel for $312,000. Woosnam didn't agree. He minimized the incident afterward. It was a mistake, and the man said he was sorry, he told the probing media. But now it was over. And that was it. He'd been a good man and Byrne still was his caddie.

Woosnam was toasted by golfers and others the world over. He was proposed for all kinds of awards, especially in the caddie pen, where, undoubtedly, they put him up for sainthood.

It was the kind of incident one feels good about telling. Forgiveness. Human kindness. You can tell it to your youngsters, and maybe the Boy Scouts troop, and there's a good chance they'll keep it with them. It would be very satisfying to end this little summary on that high note. Unfortunately, there's a downside.

Two weeks after the British Open disaster, Woosnam had an early 7:15 a.m. tee-off for the final round of the Scandinavian Masters on the European Tour. But Byrne was no where to be found. He had overslept. For caddies, a missed tee-time is, indeed, a cardinal sin.

Woosnam got off on time, thanks to the goodwill of the local caddiemaster. He didn't do much in the final round to improve his finish in 59th place. But he did draw a round of loud applause from much of the golf world at the end of the day. He fired Byrne!

Who said golf is just a game?

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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