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Slocum beating odds, illness

After overcoming colitis, Buy.com graduate is making headway on the PGA Tour.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


PALM HARBOR -- There are several paths to the PGA Tour, each with various obstacles and detours. Heath Slocum took the road least traveled, even though it was filled with plenty of potholes.

Slocum last month earned a rare "battlefield promotion" onto the PGA Tour by capturing his third Buy.com Tour event of the year at the Omaha Classic. Winning three times on the lower-level circuit merits an automatic jump to the big tour, which sounds easy enough except Slocum is the second person to accomplish the feat.

He did it despite taking more than year off from golf to fight a mysterious illness, playing full time for the first time in 2000. That he won three events in seven weeks -- and at one point went 106 holes without making bogey -- is as impressive as it is remarkable.

"It really solidifies to myself that I can do it and I can play," said Slocum, 27, who will make his fifth PGA Tour start at the Tampa Bay Classic at the Westin Innisbrook Resort. "And that I have the game to win on the next level."

Slocum, who lives in Pensacola and was an All-American at the University of South Alabama, didn't figure to be playing anywhere in 1998 when he had an undiagnosed case of ulcerative colitis, a disease of the lower colon.

His weight dropped from 150 pounds to 122 pounds, and instead of swinging a 1-iron, Slocum began to look like one.

"I actually thought he was going to die," said Jack Slocum, Heath's father.

"I thought I had simply gotten sick, but I stayed sick for four months," Heath Slocum said. "It was rough, really touch-and-go for awhile. Needless to say, I didn't play golf for a long, long time."

Slocum first played the Buy.com Tour in 1997, when he made five cuts in 19 starts. It was his only full season on the tour before this year.

In 1998 he fell ill with colitis, although he didn't know it at first. He visited various doctors before the illness was diagnosed, losing weight and desire along the way.

"You don't feel like eating because everything goes straight through you," he said. "My stomach cramped, and some days arthritis ran through my joints and I literally could not get out of bed. I felt like a 60-year-old man and I was 24."

A proper diagnosis and medication helped Slocum get better, but when he finally started playing golf again in mid-1999, he had no stamina. It wasn't until he was referred to a doctor who specialized in colitis that he regain his strength.

He spent the 2000 season playing the Development Players Tour, a mini tour operated by his father in Atlanta. Then he went to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament last fall, where he missed his card by three strokes but qualified for the Buy.com tour.

"I came back out with a fresh, new attitude," Slocum said. "I firmly believe everything happens for a reason. What I have is not nearly as bad as illnesses some people have to go through.

"It's given me a whole new perspective. I don't think I would be the player I am now if I hadn't gotten it. I'm a better person, a better player for having gone through this."

In the 11-year history of the Buy.com Tour (formerly the Nike and Hogan tours), only Chris Smith in 1997 earned an immediate promotion to the PGA Tour by winning three times.

Slocum wasn't doing anything special until he won the Greater Cleveland Open in June. He followed that with a victory at the Knoxville Open in July. That all but assured him of a place on the PGA Tour next year because the top-15 money winners on the Buy.com Tour earn an exemption for the following year. His victory in Omaha simply speeded up the process.

"I played with Heath on the Buy.com tour, and I think he should be out here," said David Gossett, who earned his exemption by winning the John Deere Classic in July. "If you win three times on the Buy.com Tour, you should be out here on the PGA Tour. There are guys who are out here now who probably wouldn't win out there."

So far, Slocum's best finish in a PGA Tour event is a tie for 49th at the Buick Open. He's made three cuts and earned just more than $22,000. But that is of little consequence. He earned more than $337,000 on the Buy.com Tour, and his exemption runs through next season.

"It's the ultimate dream come true," he said.

NOTES: Steve Burns shot 63 at Fox Hollow in New Port Richey to lead open qualifying for the Tampa Bay Classic. He will be joined in the field by Matt Wills (65), Doug LaCrosse (66) and John Van Wart (66). LaCrosse and Van Wart survived a two-hole playoff for the final two spots with Ken Tanigawa. ... Jose Coceres received a late spot in the American Express Championship field in St. Louis, meaning he is no longer in the Tampa Bay Classic field. He was replaced by Valrico's Michael Bradley. Brent Schwarzrock withdrew due to an injury and was replaced by Scott Gump. ... The Celebrity Skins Challenge begins today at 3 p.m. on the first tee with the pro/amateur teams of Mike Hulbert/Ron Diaz, Gary Nicklaus/Steve Duemig, Chris Perry/Jay Crawford and Dan Forsman/Al Keck.

Tampa Bay Classic

WHAT: A 72-hole official PGA Tour stroke-play event sponsored by Buick with 156 players.

WHEN/WHERE: Thursday-Sunday; WHERE: Westin Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor.

PURSE: $2.5-million, $450,000 to the winner.

TICKETS: $20 daily in advance, $30 at the gate. A weekly badge is available for $50 in advance, $60 at the gate. Children 17 and under are admitted free with a paid adult. Tickets also may be purchased through the tournament charities, Ticketmaster -- (727) 898-2100 or (813) 287-8844, www.ticketmaster.com -- and the Tampa Bay Classic tournament office (727) 942-5566.

PARKING: $5, located off Klosterman Road, north of the resort, west of U.S. 19. From Tarpon Springs, take U.S. 19 south to Klosterman, turn right. From Clearwater, take U.S. 19 north to Klosterman, turn left. The parking lots are adjacent to the course beneath the power lines. Parking will be available beginning Saturday at the St. Petersburg College campus off Klosterman.

TV: 8-10:30 p.m., Golf Channel (taped). OTHER EVENTS: Today's pro-am is on the Island course at 7:45 a.m. Practice rounds continue today at Copperhead, along with the Celebrity Skins Challenge at 3 p.m. Wednesday's pro-am is on Copperhead, with morning and afternoon shotgun starts. The tournament begins Thursday. A junior clinic is about 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

INFORMATION: Call (727) 942-5566 or visit the tournament's Web site at www.tampabayclassic.com.

- Compiled by Bob Harig.

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