Commentary

For Slocum, Barclays a high-yield win

Originally Published: August 30, 2009
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- It's no secret that Tiger Woods leads the PGA Tour in face time each week, but even the world's No. 1-ranked player was forced to take a backseat at The Barclays.

That's because situated just two long par-4s from Liberty National Golf Club's 18th green is the Statue of Liberty, which hogged television coverage throughout the tournament, her torch serving not only as a beacon of freedom, but a conspicuous badge of honor for the event's initial journey to this venue.

Immortalized on the statue's pedestal are words from poet Emma Lazarus, proclaiming, in part, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." This message didn't necessarily serve any symbolic relevance for this week's competitors, many of whom were tired, none of whom were poor.

They were, however, a huddled mass on the leaderboard.

When the final twosome of Paul Goydos and Steve Marino made the turn to the back nine in Sunday's round, 10 players were within 2 strokes of the leaderboard; they were joined by one more just minutes later. This group included the aforementioned 54-hole leaders; major champions Woods, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington; 2009 tournament winners Steve Stricker and Nick Watney; solid veterans Fredrik Jacobson and Bill Haas; and rookie upstart Webb Simpson.

Perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated man in that pack was Heath Slocum, a soft-spoken two-time PGA Tour champion whose greatest claim to fame was graduating from the same Milton, Fla., high school as a couple of fellow players named Bubba Watson and Boo Weekley.

Of course, there was good reason to discount Slocum. His two career victories came against proletariat fields at opposite-field events in Tucson, Ariz., and Madison, Miss. -- and not since the 2005 season. More importantly, he squeaked into the FedEx Cup playoffs as the 124th-ranked player in the 125-man field following a regular season in which he posted just a pair of top-25 results in 23 appearances.

And yet, during a year in which B-listers Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang won the four major championship titles, it's only fitting that some two hours after that mass of accomplished players first huddled on the leaderboard, Slocum was the man who yearned his way free, sinking a 21-foot, 2-inch par-saving putt on the final hole that would ultimately clinch victory.

"It was an incredible day, incredible experience," said Slocum, who posted rounds of 66-72-70-67. "I was just kind of lucky to come out on top. A lot of good players. At the end of the day, that putt on the last was magical. I'll remember that for the rest of my life."

It would be extreme to draw a parallel between long-ago immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island in search of a better life and Slocum, who earned his comeuppance with Lady Liberty lurking in the background under a late-afternoon sky. It's noteworthy, though, that as the first FedEx Cup playoff winner in nine events ranked lower than 39th on the Official World Golf Ranking at the time of his victory (he was No. 197 entering the week), this was truly a land of opportunity for Slocum, who moved from second-to-last on the list of qualified players to third entering the second round at this week's Deutsche Bank Championship.

Just seven days earlier, he was contemplating life without competitive golf for an entire month. After missing the cut in Greensboro, he retreated to his Alpharetta, Ga., home with wife Vicky and 21-month-old daughter Stella, relegated to knowing his fate was in the hands of other players.

"I went out to the course for a little while, just hit a few balls in case I was to get in," Slocum recalled. "My wife was pretty diligent on the computer, looking at it. At one point when I got home from the course, I guess I dropped to 126. I took my daughter downstairs and played. My wife came down and said, 'I think I've got some good news. I think you finished 124.'"

Even so, surging from that number to a victory at The Barclays is the equivalent of a sub-.500 club in a team sport earning a playoff series win. He is golf's version of the 1975-76 Detroit Pistons, who went 36-46 before scoring an opening-round postseason victory, or the 1985-86 Toronto Maple Leafs, who were 25-48-7 in the regular season, but also advanced. Speaking of playoffs, Slocum's final-hole putt avoided a five-man overtime with Woods, Els, Harrington and Stricker -- a quartet that has combined for 97 career PGA Tour titles and 20 major championships.

While it's that stroke which will receive attention in headlines and on highlight shows, the real turning point in the final round came much earlier in the afternoon. With co-leaders Goydos and Marino at 9-under-par on the third hole, Slocum remained 3 shots further back. Within a two-minute span, however, Goydos missed a bogey putt on the third green, and some 50 yards down a slope, past some trees and over a creek, Slocum holed a 158-yard approach on No. 5 with his 7-iron for eagle. When Marino failed to convert his par seconds later, that differential had evaporated.

"As soon as I hit it, I knew I just flushed it," Slocum said. "It was going right to the pin. I saw it hit, I didn't see anything else. I didn't see it go in. The crowd went crazy. I didn't know if it was really close or if it had gone in."

"Just like a little gopher going for his hole, it just jumped right in," said Stricker, his playing partner. "He didn't see it. I saw it go in. So he was a little shocked at it all. It was a great shot. Probably the toughest hole of the tournament."

Slocum followed with a birdie on the next hole, then a bogey and a par, before playing the back nine in a blemish-free 34 strokes.

Left in his wake were those heavy hitters. Els cracked his driver on Saturday, yet still posted a bogey-free 66 for his best finish of the year with a replacement; Harrington continued building on a recent hot streak, making birdie on four of his final seven holes; Stricker missed a 12-foot putt of his own on that final hole, knowing that it would have forced a playoff; and in the most surprising development of all, Woods needed to drain a 7-footer for birdie that would have eventually done the same, but slid it right past the cup.

Remembering that having his fate controlled by others allowed for Slocum's place in the field originally, and you've got to wonder how many points he's now used up on his karma card. Unofficially, that was the game's best clutch putter (Woods) and purest rock-roller (Stricker) who each missed makeable attempts on the 72nd hole that would have forced a playoff.

While Tiger blamed his failed effort on a misread, the champion shrugged it off as the law of averages. "Usually he makes it," Slocum said. "I guess you can't make 'em all."

Then again, the 35-year-old eight-year PGA Tour veteran never considered himself in competition with the other guys, instead concerning himself only with the task at hand.

"All I can do is play the golf course. That's all I was doing," he said. "The people that I'm chasing or are chasing me, all that stuff is kind of irrelevant. ... I don't worry about who is ahead of me, who is behind me. I'm focused right on the golf course and the task at hand. I did it well this week. All week."

Next up for Slocum is a trip to TPC Boston that seemed improbable just a few days earlier. No matter the result, he'll follow that with appearances at Cog Hill and East Lake, the latter of which will host the Tour Championship, with a $10 million payout to the FedEx Cup champion.

Before any of that, though, he will tour New York City with his family Monday. Though their journey may not include a trip to the Statue of Liberty, Slocum will never be able to gaze upon the monument again without thinking of his conquest at Liberty National. Those who live nearby, however, may not be able to say the same when they look back at the unlikely winner.

"I have a feeling that no one is going to know who I am," he said with a laugh. "When I was living in Pensacola, I'm not huge by any means, but people didn't know who I was there. Maybe this will change. Maybe in New York [on Monday] somebody will at least recognize me. I doubt it."

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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