Sluman gets a grip at the Memorial; Nicklaus holds his own

Posted: Friday, June 03, 2005

DUBLIN, Ohio — Even after Jeff Sluman polished off his best round of the year, a 7-under 65 that gave him a one-shot lead in the Memorial, he was quick to ask the question on just about every player's mind Thursday.

What did Jack shoot?

In what might be his final PGA Tour event on American soil, Jack Nicklaus sent a fan to the hospital after hitting him with a tee shot, sent the gallery to its feet with back-to-back birdie putts inside 6 inches and spent most of the gray, cool day at Muirfield Village holding his own until three bogeys on the last four holes dropped him to a 75.

It was better than Vijay Singh (77), Davis Love III (78) and Mike Weir (76), but still 10 shots behind Sluman, and not nearly good enough to make him feel like celebrating.

''I had a chance to shoot a pretty darn good score,'' Nicklaus said. ''I shot 75. That's about my game. I don't see anybody being scared by it. It didn't scare a soul except me.''

No one was scared, although that didn't stop the admiration and appreciation of the tournament founder and host, now on the last leg of an incomparable competitive career.

Joe Ogilvie, invited by Nicklaus to take part in a junior clinic Wednesday, shot a 67 and between questions in his interview quietly asked what Nicklaus shot. So did 24-year-old Adam Scott after bogeying the last hole for a 67, and three-time Memorial champion Tiger Woods after his bogey-free 69.

Told that it was a 75 and that Nicklaus wasn't pleased, Woods smiled.

''Shocking, huh?'' he said. ''It's Jack, you know? If he shoots over par, he's going to be mad. I'm sure he's going to probably go out on the range and work a little bit so he's ready tomorrow. Hey, that's what made him the greatest player that's ever played the game. He's never satisfied.''

No one is more appreciative than Sluman, and for good reason.

Nicklaus' assistant captain at the Presidents Cup two years ago, Sluman needed a sponsor's exemption to play in the Memorial. Equipped with a new putting grip he tried out of desperation, the 47-year-old Sluman took only 24 putts and had three birdies on the par 3s for a one-shot lead over Rory Sabbatini.

Held back by his putting the last several years, Sluman tried the belly putter at the Memorial last year. Three weeks ago, he went to a version of the ''claw grip'' that Skip Kendall first made famous, and now is used by players like Chris DiMarco, Mark O'Meara and Billy Andrade.

''It's been delightful to putt again, like you feel like you're a kid, getting all the balls to the hole,'' Sluman said. ''You're not as concerned about if you miss a green, you've got to chip it this close to make it. So, it's been a pleasurable experience since I went to that grip. I think it's here to stay.''

Whether he stays in the lead is another matter.

Muirfield Village can be punishing if a player doesn't pay attention — Singh shot a 41 on the back nine for a 77, his worst opening round since the 2000 PGA Championship — but the greens were so pure and the conditions so good that plenty of good scores were available.

Twenty-eight players broke 70, and nine players were within two shots of the lead.

Even with the new putting grip, Sluman didn't see this coming. He has only one top 10 this year, a tie for ninth at Pebble Beach when he was paired with ESPN's Chris Berman and played in the same group as comedian Bill Murray. He had Peter Jacobsen at his side at Muirfield Village, so that might explain his success.

Otherwise, he kept the ball in play and let his putter do the rest.

Woods, who can regain the No. 1 ranking this week, opened with 12 straight pars until he picked up two easy birdie putts on the par 5s — both were two-putts from about 20 feet — and opened with a 69. Aside from a 10-foot par save on the 17th, ''I really wasn't in danger of making a bogey.''

Singh had problems on the par 5s, and it caught up with him. An approach into the water on No. 5 led to a bogey, then he hit his tee shot and his approach into the water on the 11th for a double bogey. He made another double bogey on the 17th from a greenside bunker, and wound up with his worse score since a 78 in the final round of the U.S. Open last year at Shinnecock Hills.

''I just played bad,'' he said.

Nicklaus showed some fight from the start, especially when he had to play three consecutive shots before either of his partners, defending champion Ernie Els and David Toms, played their next.

But he saved par with a 15-foot putt, and overcame a sloppy double bogey with some good shots.

First came a wedge that grazed the cup on the par-5 seventh, then a 7-iron that stopped 4 inches from the cup on the par-3 eighth. The only unnerving part of his round came at the ninth, when his tee shot hit a fan in the jaw, and the man wound up going to the hospital to get stitches.

After chatting with the fan, Joe Broecker of Fishers, Ind., Nicklaus arranged to get his phone number and address so he could check on him. Then he hacked out to the fairway, stuffed his wedge to 5 feet and saved par.

What does the second round hold?

''I'll be all right,'' Nicklaus said. ''Actually, I think I might have a chance to play a decent round. We'll just see.''

Everyone else will be asking about it.



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