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Pre-Tournament Interview: Jeff Sluman & Tom Lehman

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DAVE SENKO: Well, we would like to welcome Tom Lehman and Jeff Sluman, one of whom was the 2014 champion. Jeff, maybe just get us started how this pairing came together. I know this will be your third try with a different partner this year.

JEFF SLUMAN: Well, actually I had Stads a long time ago. Last year when Fred and I were fortunate enough to win the event, I had Brad Faxon, who I won with the previous year in Savannah with couldn’t make it, and that’s how I ended up playing with Fred. Fred’s daughter was graduating from high school, so before we physically walked off 18, I said, You and I next year, and Fred said yes. Well, about five, six weeks ago it would be, Fred called me up and said he was — this is as positive as you’re going to get, he said, Doctor said I shouldn’t play until June, could be out nine months, surgery in the offing most probable. So that said to me, let’s see, I looked at the calendar, this kind of looks like mid April. So I told Fred that, you know, sorry about your injury, but I hope everything’s all right and, you know, it clears up by June. So I called the Tour office and Jimmy said that Tom was available, and then I called Tom. Nobody, I think, obviously realized he was available because this man’s a stud. Tom was gracious enough to say he would like to be my partner. That’s really how it all worked out.

DAVE SENKO: Tom, I know you have a story. I guess, you played with Bernhard the last few years and you guys won back in Savannah in 2009 I believe it was.

JEFF SLUMAN: Beat me in a playoff, but let’s not talk about that.

TOM LEHMAN: Yeah, it’s funny how things turn out. I did win the first year with Bernhard and played decently for a couple years after that but really hadn’t played well together the last couple. That wasn’t the reason I’m sure that he’s not playing. He had such a great year last year that he was in the Masters, he’s in the PLAYERS Championship. His schedule has changed a little bit so something had to give and this is kind of the week that would be easiest for him to take off just because of the tournaments he has to play in. Bernhard’s a very black and white guy. If it fits in the schedule, you play; if it doesn’t fit, you don’t play, and this didn’t fit. So I started looking around because I knew that there were some definite teams. Never for a second thought that Slu or Fred Funk would either be available because they won the thing together. I called this guy, I called that guy and everybody’s like I’m already taken, I’m already taken, I’m already playing, I’m already playing. So I end up calling the PGA TOUR office, the Champions Tour office just to get a list of guys who were still out there and actually was kind of thinking that maybe I would give Hale Irwin a call because he was without a partner. But in between finding out that Hale was available and actually calling Hale, Slu called. And then when Slu called, about five minutes later Hale called. So I would love to play with you Hale, but Slu just sent me a text 10 minutes ago so I kind of have to work through it all. Let me see what’s going on there and Funk may still be playing and yadda yadda yadda. So you end up here you are. So I keep on telling everybody that I’m playing with a guy who’s won the last two years in a row, it really doesn’t matter who his partner is so the pressure’s all on him.

DAVE SENKO: Before we get some questions, maybe each of you could just talk briefly just what makes this event, you know it’s a unique event, we play a par 3 and an 18-hole course, but what makes it so much fun for guys playing in a team environment like this?

JEFF SLUMAN: Well, I’ll start. I think it’s fun because it’s a format we never play. I mean golf, let’s face it, is an individual game. I’m trying to beat his brains in every week, he’s trying to beat mine in and everybody else. What’s great about golf is at the end of the week, if Tom’s won the event or whoever, you shake hands and you start again next week trying to do the same thing. Now we’re in a format like this on a par 3, magnificent par 3 course that we’ve never seen obviously until last year a format like this. It’s just really a joy to be out there playing. You get to play with friends and that. I’ve always admired Tom’s game since he got out on Tour in the mid ’80s, he’s an unbelievable player. Could have, should have, would have, we can all look at that, but he’s been an unbelievable player for the last 25, 30 years, could have won half a dozen majors and I like him on my team, I can tell you that.

TOM LEHMAN: It’s interesting, just think about how the worm turns, how life goes. I turned pro in 1982, the fall of 1982 and decided this kid from Minnesota, I was going to go down and play the J.C. Goosie Tour, the mini tour down in Florida before the Tour School comes up later in the fall. So I go down there and I’m playing at Lake Apopka or some crazy course, Howey-in-the-Hills or something, and I get paired with this guy from Rochester, New York, named Jeff Sluman, who I had never heard of, he never heard of me. I walked off the course, you know, because I felt this kindred spirit because you’re both using these Model 65 Tony Pena drivers. We both drove it like a dream, just drove it on a string. I’m like, holy crap, this guy, he can drive his golf ball. So all these years later now here we are quite a bit older, a lot more experienced but getting to team up. I think what Jeff said is exactly right. You spend your childhood playing in team sports and you’re member of basketball teams and football teams and baseball teams, and golf is in there, too, but most of your world is surrounded by team sports. To get a chance to play in a team event again is special because I personally have always had just so much enjoyment from being a part of a team.

Q. Talk a little bit about since you mentioned last year, this was the first year that they played the par 3 format, especially for that final round. Is there a unique challenge to playing on an all par 3 course in this competitive environment?

JEFF SLUMAN: There certainly is, and last year was more unique than this year. They changed the format a little this year, which frankly I’m disappointed in. I thought the pressure and stress that we felt playing a true alternate shot on the first nine holes of the competition on the par 3 days was very telling. One bad shot could — you know, you could be out of the tournament essentially. I kind of enjoyed that because we’re getting older and that was a good jumpy feeling in your belly that, it’s still going to be great this year, we’re going to play that modified alternate, we both tee off and then you alternate and whoever’s tee shot you take from there, but there was a lot more stress involved. I distinctly remember I hit about six inches behind on No. 4 with Fred Funk the first par 3 day here on Saturday. I mean, it was right in the middle of the lake. And then he hit it over the green and we’re looking at making double or triple, who knows what we’re going to make. And then somehow I holed it out of the bunker. It was our only bogey of the week, but that was kind of the thing that charged us up for the rest of the round, which was interesting. So from that perspective I think last year was going to be even — there’s going to be a little more stress than this year. But with nine holes to go, hopefully we’ve got a chance to win and I guess that will be enough stress if we’re in that position.

Q. Jeff, you won last two years, two different partners. How much confidence does that give you going into this year as kind of your home tournament kind of thing?

JEFF SLUMAN: Well, I don’t know about that. I view it as I’ve been able to pick great partners and super excited to play with Tom. He’s, as I said before, just been an unbelievably great player. He’s going to, I know, make a lot of birdies. Hopefully I can contribute like I have in the last couple years. You know, interestingly enough, Tom and I were captains on our — assistant captains on Corey’s Ryder Cup team and, you know, although we didn’t really hang out much on the regular Tour together, I know we’ve respected each other’s games and us as people. We always had a good time together, but it was just something about that week spending a lot of time with Tom that I thought was very special. I’m really looking forward to this week to compete with him.

TOM LEHMAN: Yeah, I agree, that was a good week. You get to know some guys in different environments that maybe you haven’t had a chance to be a part of before with him. I think the comment that Slu made that week was, Why haven’t we hung out more together in the past. It’s like yeah, you’re right. Some guys make great partners, and I think the fact that Slu has been so successful, maybe he has picked some good parters, but I think he’s been a very good partner. Part of it is it’s not so much about always making putts and hitting shots but saying the right thing and having a good sense of humor and keeping the right perspective. I think that’s one thing that obviously he brings to the table with any team is perspective, kind of keeps guys loose. Plus, he’s competitive. He probably shouldn’t have won that first time with Stadler.

JEFF SLUMAN: I don’t know about that.

TOM LEHMAN: I forget who made the long putt first, whether it was Bernhard.

JEFF SLUMAN: Bernhard, and then Stads made it. We all went into shock.

TOM LEHMAN: Just a whole bunch of great teams. Again, I’m just like him, you hear it from every team but it’s really true. As much as you love the golf part, the personal side of the Champions Tour is equally as important. And as much as you love to play golf with somebody, to be spending the time with them on the golf course is just as important and this will be a fun week.

Q. Jeff, you were here last year. What’s one of the key things that, with the way that this course plays on Sunday, that you need to do in order to get your three-peat?

JEFF SLUMAN: Well, shoot the lowest course would help. I think just getting off to a good solid start. I think it’s very important, especially on the modified alternate for the first nine holes, that’s really where you can make up a lot of ground. Hopefully we’re in a good enough position that we just — everybody obviously starts Friday at zero, all even, but as long as we’re in contention and get off to a good start, I kind of like our chances. There’s nothing you can say about three days, four days from now about what you plan on doing really. I think you just go out and, you know, sometimes if you’re behind, you’re going to free-wheel it a little more and try and be real aggressive. Just kind of see what challenges are ahead of us. At least it looks like we’re going to have real nice and kind of warm weather, which will be different than last year. It was cold and kind of rainy.

Q. Another thing I was going to ask you was — first of all, do you remember that Florida back in the ’80s when you first played your first round with Tom?

JEFF SLUMAN: Yeah. I’ll tell you, if you ever could find the records of the — we call it, there was a Space Coast or the J.C. Goosie Tour. J.C. Goosie ran the event. The number of players who went through there were amazing. I remember Tom, I remember Russ Cochran was out there and I practiced in fields all the time. I played at Deltona, which is right next to the Daytona Speedway maybe, really a tough golf course. And I had this guy named Kenny Perry and I saw him play the first four holes and I said, Oh, my God, how am I going to beat this guy? But there’s so many of us that had actually gone through that tour at the time, it was really amazing. I would like to see the records, Blackmar was there. There was just a ton of guys. There was probably at least a dozen or so guys.

TOM LEHMAN: I’m sure Azinger was probably playing there. Guys you hadn’t heard of back then and now they’re household names. Most guys started that way. There were very few superstars that came right in and made an impact.

JEFF SLUMAN: Really, there was no Web.com Tour, there was nothing. You were either on Tour, right?

TOM LEHMAN: Or you were struggling.

Q. Do the guys give you trouble because you had one partner, another partner, hey, what’s wrong with you, Jeff, you can’t keep — just joking around with you, do they?

JEFF SLUMAN: No, not really.

TOM LEHMAN: The first person I saw when I got here this week was Fred Funk. I was like, wait a second, did I miss the memo or something? I’m happy to be with the guy who won the last two years, that’s good mojo.

Q. Actually Fred Funk told that bunker story about like you did when he was here a little bit earlier about that hole. I also asked him about this. For us, a lot of us locally, part of the thrill is getting to see you guys that we saw when we were watching TV and watching golf tournaments in the ’70s and ’80s and stuff. What about you, especially with some of the older players in the Legends Division, like Nicklaus, Player, Trevino and that bunch, do you kind of get a charge about getting to see them that aren’t playing the Champions Tour on a regular basis anymore?

JEFF SLUMAN: That’s probably the only thing — I’ll let Tom speak for himself but I’m pretty sure he’ll say something similar. That’s the only bad thing about this event is we don’t get to physically walk and watch them ourselves because we’re competing at the same time. I would love to go out and watch Jack and Gary and Lee play this par 3. I think it would just be fascinating. Unfortunately, you know, that opportunity usually doesn’t exist because, like I said, we’re either playing here or at a different golf course. But I think it’s incredibly important that they come out and support this event. I did a little thing last week with Jay Haas and Nick Price, the Presidents Cup captains on the Q and A in Atlanta, and all the super seniors were there, Bob Goalby, all those guys, January was there, Gene Littler. I mean, to me, I think it’s fabulous to go out and sit down and listen to their stories and talk to them.

TOM LEHMAN: Yeah. We’re losing some of those guys, which is the sad thing. Miller Barber, no longer here, and Billy Casper, who is such a sweetheart of a guy just passed. So when you get the chance to be around, like I saw Chi Chi today, which I hadn’t seen in a long time and he’s a prince. He’s always got something clever to say, something funny. I reminded him of the time he won the tournament in Vegas on the Champions Tour and he was so concerned about President Bush who had gone to the hospital and he started crying during the award acceptance speech. His comment was, Yeah, that was back when I was a Republican; now I’m broke and I’m not anymore. So you miss those guys, you miss guys like Chi Chi or Lee who always have a quip or something to say or something funny or interesting, so it’s fun being around them when you can.

DAVE SENKO: Everyone okay? Thank you, Tom, Jeff.

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The Missouri Golf Post is a monthly digital magazine that “celebrates the people who play the game.” Each monthly issue contains several “feature” stories on golfers, golf courses, and/or major tournaments of interest statewide. Each issue contains a number of regular departments on topics such as Tournament Summaries, Fitness, “The Superintendent’s Corner,” Instruction, and Rules.

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