The three bouts with food poisoning in six months was startling, but it was the best ailment to befall Lee Slattery. It led to the purging of a former lover, a stint selling children’s clothes and a new swing coach that overhauled his approach to the game.
Slattery, England’s unknown who celebrates his 34th birthday today, finished the opening round of the Bridgestone Invitational on Thursday at 5 under, 2 strokes behind leader Jim Furyk.
Furyk began his day on the 10th tee and didn’t realize he was flirting with the course-record 61, but he missed a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 6 and sliced his tee shot on No. 7 into a greenside bunker. He still finished with a 7-under 63 to equal his best opening-round score on the PGA Tour.
Slattery’s round was perhaps even more astonishing. So is his story.
He had been on the European Tour for four years, but was toiling in anonymity in 2002 when he became increasingly ill and kept losing weight. After multiple blood tests, he was diagnosed with glandular fever, the result of repeated cases of food poisoning from seafood, an egg salad sandwich and a spoiled meat pie.
“It’s just a bit unlucky, isn’t it?” Slattery said. “I thought it was fresh food at the time, but I’m still here to tell the stories. That’s the main thing.”
Slattery is congenial, good looking and appreciative of his place in life. Doctors advised him to take a year off golf after the diagnosis to allow his body to heal, which forced him to look for work elsewhere.
A friend of his worked in a clothing store for which the owner was also an avid golfer. He knew of Slattery and liked him, so he offered him a job selling children’s clothes.
“They thought the moms might like me,” he said. “They stuck me in a suit and told me to smile. Sales shot up in the kiddie department.”
Slattery made 150 to 200 pounds a week — the equivalent of about $300 dollars today. It wasn’t much, but it was desperately needed. By comparison, he is assured of making at least $35,000 this weekend and a top-10 finish would net well more than $100,000.
“That made me realize how lucky we are to be out here, because people forget sometimes,” Slattery said. “You see guys throwing clubs and I’ll be honest, I laugh at them. I can’t help myself. I think, ‘Really? Is it that bad?’ And it’s usually the guys who are making millions doing it. What I would do is get every golfer out here to go work in a clothes shop for a year, then come back out and see how their attitudes are, because they certainly would change.”
When he was finally cleared to return to golf near the end of ’03, Slattery latched on with new coach and old friend Alan Thompson. But the first change he made was personal.
“I was going out with a girl at the time who was no good for me,” he said. “She was the first to go.”
With the distractions gone, he began seeing a sports psychologist for the first time, and Thompson improved Slattery’s mechanics.
He won the Madrid Masters last year to qualify for Bridgestone. It remains the only victory of his career. He finished 64th at the British Open two weeks ago and missed the cut at the U.S. Open in June after a miserable opening-round 79.
“I’ve been playing well for quite a while; just putting the four rounds together has been a bit of a problem recently,” he said. “I’m just waiting for a week where it all clicks into place.”
Perhaps this is finally it. He made four consecutive birdies at one point Thursday and sunk big par-saving putts on Nos. 10 and 12 after missing the green both times.
He’ll have plenty of competition throughout the weekend. Reigning MastersTournament champ Bubba Watson and Luke Donald, the world’s top-ranked player, lurk 1 stroke behind. Seventeen players begin the second round at 3 under or better.
Slattery is among them, as are other international unknowns such as John Senden, Simon Dyson and Rafael Cabrera Bello.
None of them ever worked in the children’s department and none of them have felt the wrath of food poisoning three times. Slattery is better for it.
He avoids seafood now, too.