Jeff Sluman was an early starter in golf but a late bloomer. Later than late, actually. Sluman's parents introduced him to the sport when he was four. He didn't win his first pro tournament until he was 30, but he made it a momentous one: the recently-concluded PGA Championship.
He shot a flaming 65 Sunday to come from behind and beat Paul Azinger by three strokes. His 72-hole total was 272, or 12 under par.
``I thought he'd be nervous and have some problems on the final nine holes,'' said Azinger. ``Was I ever wrong. He played one of the best nines in history.''
Sluman crafted a finishing 33 to keep Azinger at a distance and earn $160,000 for winning. Never did he appear to be in danger of losing his composure, despite the unfamiliarity of the circumstances.
It was the second disappointing major in two years for Azinger, who also led the 1987 British Open in the last round only to lose out to Great Britain's Nick Faldo.
Sluman eagled the fifth hole Sunday to light the spark. A 20-foot birdie putt at the 10th green put him in charge. A 15-foot putt to save par at the 14th was the clincher. He hit all but one fairway and 15 greens in regulation.
``Maybe now I won't have to answer all those questions about what happened at the TPC [Tournament Players Championship],'' Sluman said afterward.
Sluman, it will be remembered, had been known mainly for missing a short putt that would have won a playoff against Sandy Lyle in the 1987 TPC, after an over-zealous fan dived into the water near the 17th green and upset him.
``It feels great to win a major,'' he said. ``I can't imagine what Jack Nicklaus feels like after winning 20.''
Sluman is intense and quiet, and for him that constitutes a verbal outburst. Asked how he would celebrate, he said he might help Willie Wood, a tour pro with whom he was staying, change a diaper on one of Wood's children.
Sluman's own diapers were changed in Rochester, N.Y., where he was born and still lives. Few top golfers come from the area (though the legendary Walter Hagen was one), because the season is so short. But Jeff thinks participating in other sports helped his coordination, and that playing only a few months of golf each year kept him from losing interest later.
He graduated from Florida State University in 1980 with a degree in finance and dim chances for a future in pro golf. He didn't make the school team until his senior year and won no important amateur titles.
``I didn't really decide to turn pro until after I got out of school,'' he says. ``I qualified for the US Open and that convinced me to try it. I didn't want to be 35 and wondering if I could have made it.''
Sluman earned his playing card in 1982 and struggled anonymously in '83 and '84, failing to make expenses and losing his card. His career picked up in '85, when he earned $100,000, and he has improved dramatically every year since.
At 5 ft. 7 in. and 135 pounds, he is the smallest player on the tour, but he drives the ball powerfully. Sunday, paired with the long-hitting Faldo, he consistently outdrove his playing partner, averaging 280 yards off the tee. He prides himself on his distance, and makes more birdies than all but a few of the pros.
His swing is compact - the club never gets parallel to the ground going back - but forceful. His timing is exquisite, and he is not afraid to slam the ball aggressively.
Asked why the widely feared Oak Tree course near Oklahoma City yielded such low scoring, the fast-playing Sluman reasoned that the wind didn't come sweeping down the plain as expected and the greens had to be kept watered and somewhat soft because of the high temperatures. Golf architect Pete Dye's ``monster'' even succumbed to a record four holes-in-one.
``The time of year has a lot to do with it,'' said Dye, who watched the tournament in person. ``Or maybe I'm not such a bad guy after all.''
All in all, it was an engaging PGA and an engaging, internationally-flavored year for the major championships.
Scotchman Lyle won the Masters with a sensational recovery shot from a deep fairway bunker on the last hole. Curtis Strange, due to win a major, beat Faldo in a tense playoff at the US Open. Spain's Seve Ballesteros, the game's most scintillating player, revived to win the British Open. And finally, little Jeff Sluman refused to fold and pulled away from the field to win the PGA so courageously.
For those concerned about America's slipping dominance, his victory at least gives the US a split in this year's majors.
And for Sluman, the delighted look on his deceptively youthful face suggests that blooming late makes it all the more enjoyable.