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Golf: Chrysler Championship

Sluman 'eases' into lead with record 62

"It was one of those days ... it just seems easy," he says. He leads by two shots.

By BOB HARIG
Published October 29, 2004

PALM HARBOR - To a man, they raved about the course and its condition, about the tournament and its toughness. Then several of them showed how professional golfers can turn an otherwise long walk into a leisurely stroll.

Jeff Sluman led the way Thursday during the opening round of the $5-million Chrysler Championship at the Westin Innisbrook Resort. The former FSU golfer is in his 20th full season on the PGA Tour, but has never shot lower than the 9-under-par 62 he threw at the Copperhead course.

His score broke the record of 63 set by K.J. Choi during the Tampa Bay Classic two years ago and served notice that not even the high rough and slick greens on the 7,340-yard course were going to hold anyone back if he found fairways and greens.

"It was one of those days that because you're playing so well, it just seems easy and you kind of wonder why in the world you can't do that more often because it seems so easy," said Sluman, 47, a six-time PGA Tour winner. "Other days, making one or two birdies seems like it's going to be impossible."

Sluman made nine birdies and no bogeys to lead Jonathan Kaye, Kirk Triplett and Kent Jones by two strokes. Kaye aced the par-3 17th to propel him to 64 that was later matched by Triplett and Jones, who is 124th on the PGA Tour money list and in need of a good tournament to secure his playing privileges for 2005.

At 65 was Vijay Singh, the No. 1-ranked player in the world and the PGA Tour's leading money winner with more than $9.8-million. Singh had six birdies and no bogeys and shot in the 60s for the 15th time in the last 17 rounds on the PGA Tour.

"If you hit decent shots and make some putts, you're going to play well, and that's what I'm doing right now," Singh said.

A ninth victory for Singh would match Tiger Woods - who had nine in 2000 - for the most on the PGA Tour since Sam Snead had 11 in 1950.

It was Singh who before the tournament fretted about the rough on the Copperhead course, which last year yielded the highest 36-hole cut of any non-major tournament. And Retief Goosen's winning total of 12 under was the fourth highest for a non-major.

But with warm sunshine and little wind until the afternoon, few seemed intimidated. There were 32 scores in the 60s to just 11 during the first round a year ago. The scoring average of 71.432 was more than a stroke-and-a-half lower than last year's opening day.

"I'm surprised at the low scores," said Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who shot par 71. "The rough is tough, the greens are very quick. ... It's a terrific layout. Very good test tee to green. Tight fairways, rough that you can normally play from to the green, but it's very difficult to get it on the surface because the greens are firm. But I guess it's very evident that if you play well, you can score well here without wind."

Mickelson doesn't have much at stake this week. He is second on the money list, but can't catch Singh, who has all but wrapped up player of the year honors and likely will win the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average.

But Jay Haas, 50, is 29th on the money list and trying to hold his spot in next week's Tour Championship, which is for the top 30. Haas shot 67 and was tied for eighth. Kaye, 34, who won his second career PGA Tour event this year in Phoenix, is 32nd on the money list and can move into the top 30 with a strong finish. Jones, 37, is battling to remain exempt for 2005.

Sluman, meanwhile, had none of that on his mind. He is 79th on the money list and can only qualify for the Tour Championship with a victory. Same for next year's Masters, which requires a top-40 finish on the money list.

"I'm not coming in here goal-oriented in that respect," Sluman said. "I think if I just go out and just keep playing solid golf, maybe something good will happen. I played very solid all year, I just haven't put any great tournaments together. Maybe this is the last one that can be a great one for me."

Sluman was bothered by a bad back at last week's Funai Classic and missed the cut. So he got to Innisbrook on Sunday, received some treatment on his back Monday and made seven birdies in Wednesday's pro-am.

He didn't stop on Thursday, birdieing five of the first nine holes, then finishing with three on his last five, including a 7-iron from a fairway bunker at the 18th hole to 1 foot for a tap-in.

"I like the golf course," Sluman said. "It fits my eye. I feel like I know what I have to do on every hole and what kind of shot I've got to hit ... It's kind of an old-time golf course. There's a lot of thought in there. You can't just get up and bash driver everywhere. You can hit some irons off tees. To a player, we say this is almost one of the best golf courses we play on tour and probably the best golf course we play in Florida."

High praise, but don't bet on Sluman shooting 62 again. The Copperhead has yielded just six scores under 65 in four years. All of them have come in the opening round of the tournament.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 23:50:16]


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