Wednesday, 10 May 2017

1987: Players Championship

Jeff Sluman looked set to win the 1987 Players Championship in a play-off against Sandy Lyle, before a drunk spectator plunged into the sporting hall of shame.

It should have been a moment in the spotlight for Jeff Sluman. After seven years as a professional, the 29-year-old stood over a putt on the notorious 17th hole at Sawgrass to claim not just his first tournament on the PGA Tour, but the prestigious Players Championship, an event that despite being relatively new, had such a strong field that some had already dubbed it as the fifth major.

Unfortunately, Sluman would soon be upstaged by a supporting actor; a distraction at the worst possible moment, causing a crucial break in concentration that many felt had cost the American a chance of breaking his duck on the tour. Just as Sluman was about to make a splash in the world of golf, another would prove costly.

Played in March, the 1987 Players Championship had been beset with bad weather over the course of the four days. Thunderstorms had caused delays over the first two days, with the players forced to go out in threeballs on the dramatic Sunday. The persistent rain softened the greens, leading to low scoring that would eventually see two men tie Calvin Peete's 1985 record total of -14.

American Steve Jones would initially make the running, rounds of 66 and 67 leaving him with a halfway total of -11, yet a disastrous 76 on the Saturday would spell the end of his challenge. Going into the final day, Mark O'Meara, who had played 27 holes on the Saturday due to the weather delays, led the tournament with Scott Simpson on -14. But with Ben Crenshaw and Sandy Lyle just two back, Sluman a further shot behind, and Greg Norman and Paul Azinger four adrift, the tournament looked liked going down to the wire.

That Lyle was even in contention was a relief to the Scot, after a rocky start to his season that had seen him win just £22,000 from seven US events. After taking in some advice from professional teacher Jimmy Ballard, Lyle announced on the eve of the tournament that his game had improved 40%, and after making his first cut in three attempts at the Players Championship, the initial results were encouraging.

As the leaders reached the back nine on the Sunday, a play-off seemed inevitable, with several players jostling for the title. However, although Norman set the clubhouse lead of -12, it would be Lyle and Sluman who finished the strongest. Both would birdie 15, Lyle's chip hitting the flag and dropping in when it appeared to be motoring past the hole. A stroke of luck that would prove crucial.

Birdies from the duo on the 18th would set the new benchmark of -14; Lyle's 35-foot putt just about having enough on it to drop, with Sluman bravely following him in from 15-feet. Neither Simpson or O'Meara could find the necessary birdie down the last to join the leaders, so Sluman and Lyle set off to the 16th in the rain and gloom for the start of the sudden death play-off.

In truth, Lyle did not play the par five hole with much confidence. A wayward drive, poor approach shot, and nervy par putt that tried to sneak away to the left, saw Lyle leave the green with a wry smile on his face. Sluman played the hole in a much more solid fashion, and after the pair exchanged tee shots at the iconic par three 17th island hole, it was very much advantage Sluman.

Lyle safely found the green, although his chances of birdie were slim, and when Sluman hit his tee shot and immediately walked after the ball, it was obvious that the American was pleased with his effort. Finishing six-feet from the flag, Sluman now had a very realistic chance of claiming the $180,000 first prize, along with a ten-year exemption on the PGA Tour.

It looked as if Lyle's bid for the title was over when his outside chance of a birdie slid past, all eyes now focusing on Sluman as he paced around his putt to get a read of the line. Settling behind his ball, Sluman was about to strike what he hoped would be his final putt of the championship, when he stepped away due to a noise in the background.

The source of the noise would soon become apparent to US television viewers when the cameras panned to a man swimming in the water by the 17th ("one of our more fortified customers," to use the words of commentator Ben Wright). The interruption could not have been timed at a more inconvenient moment for Sluman. Understandably perturbed at the ongoing chaos, he had to recompose himself before attempting to go through the process again.

However, Sluman's effort was not struck with enough authority, and as it drifted by on the right, boos filled the air as the intruder escaped the clutches of the security staff on the course. "I was ready to hit the putt," Sluman later revealed. "I'm not saying that I would have made it but that guy didn't help matters. I'm amazed anyway that anyone would dive into that water because there are a couple of alligators out there."

"It didn't help Jeff very much at the time," Lyle admitted after the water had stilled. "He was just getting settled over the ball when there was this big splash." Lyle took full advantage, finishing off at 17, and sinking a par putt at the 18th to win his first tournament since the Greensboro Open in 1986. "It's a big step in establishing myself worldwide," Lyle claimed. A little over a year later, his win at the Masters definitely did that.

Sluman would eventually win his first PGA tour event, his major triumph at the 1988 US PGA Championship helping to ease the pain of the 1987 Players Championship. But what of the man who had thrown himself into the water on that fateful day? Later revealed as a 20-year-old Florida State cheerleader, Hal Valdes wrote a letter of apology to Sluman in which he described himself as a moron. Not many would disagree with that view.

Valdes' opinion has not changed over time. "It's not one of my proudest moments," Valdes declares in this 2002 article. "I was hammered," he admits, both physically and verbally. He never did collect his $500 bet winnings, feeling too ashamed with the whole business. Lyle may have come out of the event as a winner, but for Valdes and Sluman there were only regrets.

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