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Slocum claimed 2009 FedExCup Playoffs event, avoided playoff with Woods, Els, Stricker, Harrington

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NORTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 5:  (L-R) Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods and Heath Slocum shat during the second round of the Deutsche Bank Championship held at TPC Boston on September 5, 2009 in Norton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

NORTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 5: (L-R) Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods and Heath Slocum shat during the second round of the Deutsche Bank Championship held at TPC Boston on September 5, 2009 in Norton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Tiger, Els, Harrington and Stricker were waiting nine years ago – but then Cinderella appeared in the FedExCup Playoffs



    Written by Mike McAllister @PGATOUR_MikeMc

    A smile crosses Heath Slocum’s face as he relives the moment from nine years ago. It was a chance meeting with then-Commissioner Tim Finchem, whose dry wit would occasionally bubble to the surface when he wasn’t conducting vital business from the PGA TOUR’s highest office.

    Finchem had a message for Slocum.

    “Thanks for ruining the best playoff ever,” he said with a wink while trying to suppress his grin.

    Slocum knew Finchem was just teasing, but as with most sarcasm, there was likely a modicum of truth to the line.

    The Louisiana native most certainly did deny the golf world a truly epic playoff, one that would have included multi-major winners with Hall of Fame credentials; an ultra-likable and late-blooming star; and the world’s top golfer who had spent the previous 12 years redefining the sport.

    Oh, and the playoff would have unfolded at the most unique setting in golf, right across the river from the largest city in the U.S. and media capital of the world, and in the shadow of the nation’s symbol of freedom.

    Tiger Woods vs. Ernie Els vs. Padraig Harrington vs. Steve Stricker -- and, of course, Slocum too – at Liberty National. A tournament (then The Barclays; now THE NORTHERN TRUST) on the line, as well as early ramifications on the FedExCup Playoffs and the chase for its $10 million bonus.

    Tense. Delicious.

    Even Slocum, nine years later, had to admit the obvious.

    “Would’ve been a good playoff under those conditions,” he shrugged.

    Instead, his 20-foot par-saving putt on the 72nd hole stunned the gallery and saved all of us the trouble of extra holes. Slocum, then the world’s 197th-ranked player, finished one stroke better than four players each ranked inside the world’s top 25.

    It wasn’t exactly like the Grinch stealing Christmas. Slocum is too nice of a guy for that. Still …

    “That would’ve been some place to have a playoff, especially in the city, in New York,” Els said recently. “It would’ve been unbelievable. It would’ve been great.”

    “Good atmosphere at a fun place – yeah, it would’ve been cool to see how that would’ve played out,” echoed Stricker.

    An hour or so after his putt, Slocum used the words “magical” and incredible” to describe his feelings. The emotions are just as strong nine years later as he discusses the most unlikely win in FedExCup Playoffs history.

    “Right week. Right course,” he said at a rare TOUR appearance, this one at the Barracuda Championship. “The venue, the field, the finish -- I couldn’t have written the script any better.”

    But what about the script that wasn’t written?

    SLAYING THE TIGER

    Tiger Woods arrived at Liberty National ranked No. 1 in the world and No. 1 in FedExCup points. It had been a typically dominant season – five wins to that point, made even more impressive that he was coming off knee surgery the previous year. But he hadn’t won a major in 2009, and in fact, had just finished runner-up to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship in his previous start two weeks earlier.

    The outcome was shocking: It was the first time in Tiger’s career he failed to close out a major after leading by 54 holes.

    “That night was tough, no doubt” Woods said in his pre-tournament interview.

    Steve Stricker was No. 6 in the world and No. 2 in FedExCup points, right behind Woods. He had won twice that season, including a three-man playoff at Colonial.

    Padraig Harrington was 11th in the world and 66th in FedExCup points. He had won three majors in the previous two years but was winless in 2009. Even so, Harrington felt he had raised the level of consistency in his game, especially from tee to green. And he was heating up. He entered Liberty National off back-to-back top-10s -- a T2 at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational (won by Woods) and a T10 at the PGA (he was in contention until a quintuple bogey midway through his final round).

    Ernie Els was 25th in the world and 47th in points. He had won at least one worldwide event in each of the previous 17 years, but like Harrington, was winless in 2009. That made him hungry to maintain his streak, although he was running out of opportunities.

    As for Slocum? Although he was 197th in the world, the more important thing was his FedExCup ranking: 124th. He had to sweat out his position the week before after missing the cut at the Wyndham Championship – it was his 10th missed cut in his first 23 starts that year -- and didn’t know he was guaranteed a spot until the final putt dropped. Nearly 44 percent of his points had been accumulated in his two top-10 finishes.

    In essence, he was the next-to-last man in the field. Troy Matteson had one less FedExCup point, leaving him at No. 125.

    Yet when the tournament started, the list of challengers became much smaller.

    Hosting a PGA TOUR event for the first time, the course – built by Tom Kite and Bob Cupp three years earlier on a toxic landfill – received mixed reviews at best. Among the criticisms: the sight lines were awkward; the landing areas were too tight; the slopes were too severe; the rough, at 4 inches, was too long.

    Woods simply called it “interesting.” Back then, of course, course set-up and conditions didn’t matter to Tiger. He could win on a goat track.

    As for those of lesser talent, some seemed to immediately mentally check out due to their dislike of Liberty National. Others, such as Harrington and Els, embraced the course. “Players were not happy, but I really liked it,” recalled Els, who compared to course to some of the links venues in his native South Africa.

    Slocum liked it too.

    “I’ve always believed in myself and my ability,” he said. “A lot of times, it has to do with a golf course that can fit someone who hits it like me. That week was just one of those great weeks, where I think it was 11 or 12 something under par and you could get it around a course like that.”

    On Thursday, he birdied his final four holes for a 5-under 66. Friday was more difficult. He and Matteson were in an afternoon twosome that played behind threesomes, so the pace was frustratingly slow. Meanwhile, the weather worsened during the day. Slocum finished bogey/double bogey to shoot 72.

    Still, he was tied for fourth through 36 holes, higher on the leaderboard than the four eventual runners-up.

    That changed on Saturday. Stricker’s 68 left him at 6 under, one stroke ahead of Slocum. Woods and Harrington were 4 under. Els – who had climbed back from a horrendous start on Thursday when he was 4 over after four holes -- was now at 3 under. They would all chase 54-hole co-leaders Paul Goydos and Steve Marino at 9 under.

    Woods was asked how close he needed to be to stay within striking distance. “Seven [strokes] or less,” he replied.

    As it turned out, the leaders were not the problem. Goydos shot 75 in the final round; Marino’s 77 was the highest score of the day.

    The door was open. Four of the game’s biggest names stepped up.

    So did the FedExCup’s version of Cinderella.

    SUPERSTARS GALORE AS SLOCUM LURKS

    A playoff involving Ernie Els and Tiger Woods would’ve been the latest chapter in a fascinating duel that had already existed for more than a decade.

    At the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand, Els got his first look at Playoff Tiger. Els had led the tournament from Day One, leaving Tiger eight shots behind entering the final round. But Tiger roared back, and Els had to make a 14-foot birdie putt on the last hole just to force a playoff. Tiger then won on the second hole.

    Two years later, they met for the first time in a PGA TOUR playoff, at the then-Mercedes Championship. Tiger won again. They would meet for a second time on the European Tour in 2006 at the Dubai Desert Classic – again, with Tiger winning.

    Of course, their most famous playoff came on the final day of the 2003 Presidents Cup in Els’ home country of South Africa. With the U.S. and International Teams tied after regulation, Woods and Els were tabbed by their respective captains (Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player) to battle it out. They played three holes, neither giving an inch. With darkness falling, the playoff was halted and the Presidents Cup shared in the spirit of sportsmanship.

    Els would’ve welcomed another chance to face the most intimidating player in golf.

    “It’s always been an absolute pleasure to play with him,” Els said. “I always learned something from him. I think it was vice-versa a little bit. He liked to play with me – and he liked to kick the hell out of me. I think he picked some stuff out of my game like I did with his. I was always in awe when he was playing. He was a very, very special player.”

    Harrington also had playoff experience against Woods -- and with some success. In the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix Open in Japan, the Irishman denied Tiger a third straight tournament title by winning on the second playoff hole.

    Harrington also had Ryder Cup success against Woods; he and Colin Montgomerie had teamed up to beat the infamous pairing of Woods and Phil Mickelson in 2004. Woods, of course, also had his share of Presidents Cup matches against Els.

    And in one event, Woods and Els were even on the same side – at the 2003 Battle of the Bridges. The duo lost to Mickelson and Sergio Garcia in that made-for-TV event.

    Ultimately, those three – Woods, Els and Harrington, a combined 20 majors and more than 150 worldwide wins – would need help to face each other in a playoff.

    It nearly happened.

    'DO NOT LEAVE IT SHORT'

    Els was the first to finish. He shot a bogey-free 66 to post the number to beat: 8 under. He didn’t think it would hold. He put his bags in the trunk of his car and changed out of his golf shoes.

    Harrington finished a half-hour later after charging up the leaderboard with four birdies in his final eight holes. “I wasn’t really in the tournament until the end,” he recalled. He was also at 8 under. He stuck around just in case.

    Woods was in the next group to finish. He stepped onto the 18th green at 8 under and had a 7-foot birdie putt to gain a share of the lead with Slocum and Stricker. Fait accompli, right? Woods never misses a putt in this situation, right?

    A gasp – well, more like a groan -- rolled through the gallery when he failed to convert.

    Perhaps it was a carryover from the PGA two weeks earlier, when Tiger missed key putts from a similar distance down the stretch in losing to Yang. Woods acknowledged his mistake on the “tricky” greens at Liberty National.

    “We misread it by almost a cup,” he said. “That’s frustrating when you misread a putt that bad.”

    Slocum and Stricker, playing partners on the final day, were 200 yards away, preparing to hit their second shots at 18. Slocum thought Tiger’s putt was from a much longer distance.

    “It looked like an 18-footer until I saw the replay,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh. How lucky.’ He just doesn’t miss many of those.”

    The tournament was now in the hands of Slocum and Stricker, but they were in scramble mode. Each teed off at the 18th at 9 under – and each had found the fairway bunker, Stricker on the left side, Slocum on the right. Par was no longer a given.

    Els pulled his clubs out of his trunk, changed his shoes and headed to the range to warm up. Harrington was already there.

    Both bunker shots caught a small piece of the lip and failed to reach the green. Stricker then followed with a wedge shot to 10 feet. Slocum hit his wedge shot to 20 feet. Both needed to make their putts to save par and force a two-man playoff. If both missed, it would be a five-man battle.

    Slocum liked his line and his confidence. “I was rolling it really well all week,” he said. “All I told myself was do not leave it short.”

    It was the most important putt of his career. When it dropped, Woods, Harrington and Els were eliminated.

    “I don’t think anybody was expecting him to make that putt at the last,” recalled Harrington. “We were all getting our heads around going out there in a playoff, was looking forward to it. But he did the business.”

    Now all the pressure was on Stricker, one of the finest putters of his generation. But he could not convert.

    It’s been nine years, but that bogey at Liberty National has not disappeared.

    “That’s what sticks in my mind – having the opportunity to win there against a good field,” Stricker said. “Just how making bogey stings a little bit.”

    Els packed his clubs away for the second time. Another close call, but he couldn’t help feeling happy for the lesser-known winner who had taken down four of golf’s biggest names.

    “We’ve seen it happy many times,” Els said. “Seen it happen with Larry Mize beating Seve [Ballesteros] and Greg Norman [in the 1987 Masters]. Fuzzy Zoeller beating Tom Watson, who was the best player in the world then [at the ’79 Masters]. I remember in 1994, I was nowhere and I beat Greg Norman, who was the No. 1 player in the world, in Dubai. So these things happen.

    “When you lose, of course you feel a little disappointed. But in golf, we’re always happy for the guy who wins because there’s always a story behind it.”

    In this case, the ramifications were significant.

    CINDERELLA STORY BECOMES TRUE STORY

    With the win, Slocum immediately became the new poster boy for the FedExCup, which at that point was in its third year. He moved from 124th to third in the standings – the jump of 121 spots remains the biggest in Playoffs history.

    It showed the true essence of the Playoffs -- any of its 125 competitors can make a legitimate run at the big prize.

    “That’s the beauty of what they were trying to do,” Slocum said of the TOUR’s introduction of its post-season format. “Maybe not quite to that extreme – they made a little bit of an adjustment [Playoff wins are now worth 2,000 points, not 2,500 as in 2009]. But at the time, if they were going to put emphasis on the Playoffs, that’s what could happen.

    “It showed you what you could do if you just get into the top 125 and get hot.”

    Slocum ultimately would finish eighth in the final FedExCup standings that year. Woods won his second FedExCup title thanks to his win at the BMW Championship and a runner-up finish to Mickelson at the TOUR Championship. Els, Harrington and Stricker also finished inside the top 10 that week at East Lake.

    Meanwhile, the idea of a dominant U.S. duo had been generated at Liberty National.

    The first time Woods and Stricker were grouped at a PGA TOUR event was in 1997 at the AT&T Pebble Beach. They didn’t play again for another 10 years until the inaugural FedExCup Playoffs, which groups players in the first two rounds by their FedExCup status.

    It took another two years for the two to be paired again – at Liberty National. Looming on the horizon was the 2009 Presidents Cup in San Francisco. Somewhere during those first two rounds, with the Statue of Liberty prodding their national pride, Woods and Stricker discussed the possibility of a partnership.

    Their talks continued throughout the Playoffs, as they were paired at all four events for a total of seven rounds. Ultimately, it was an easy decision for U.S. Captain Fred Couples – and a very wise move.

    The Woods-Stricker Presidents Cup duo was unbeatable at TPC Harding Park, winning by scores of 6&4, 5&3, 4&2 and then the only close call, a 1-up victory over Tim Clark and Mike Weir. The Americans eventually beat the Internationals by five points.

    Last fall, Woods, Els and Stricker were again at Liberty National, although neither in a playing capacity. Stricker was the U.S. Captain for the Presidents Cup; Woods was one of his assistants. Els was an assistant on the International side. A few months later, Woods and Els were named captains for their respective sides at the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia. Their duel continues.

    As for Slocum, the Cinderella story was not sustainable. He did win another TOUR event in 2010, but since then the ride has been bumpy. Four years ago, he suffered a flare-up of his ulcerative colitis – which was first diagnosed after his college career and sidelined him for two years.

    Slocum tried to play through the pain but was not competitive.

    “Looking back, I wish I would’ve stopped, taken a medical, got my health back and then tried,” said Slocum, a long-time spokesman for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. “But pride got in the way.”

    After losing his TOUR card, he finally took some time off. He now enjoys seeing his daughters growing up, and he’s also is involved in Biomech, a company offering putters and putting aids, including a sensor for in-depth analysis. “Keeps me busy,” he said.

    But the itch has returned. He wants to play competitive golf again and his health is back. Playing opportunities are difficult to come by, though – the Barracuda appearance was just his third start of the year. He made the cut and finished T-71.

    “I’m 44. I’ve still got years left,” Slocum said. “I’ve got a young body. My game is good. It’s still rusty right now, but I’m working my way back into form.”

    Slocum’s boyish looks are now hidden slightly by his facial hair, but the gleam in his eye remains. It’s been nine years since Cinderella danced in the FedExCup Playoffs. Perhaps one day, he’ll get another chance to wear the glass golf shoe.

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