Micheel's mettle tested again
ROCHESTER, N.Y. --- The magnitude of the man's mettle could never be measured with that glorious shot on the 18th of Oak Hill Country Club, the bounce, bounce, bounce of his ball within a whisper of the cup. Out of the gallery, a cruel voice had just screamed, "Don't pull a Jean Van de Velde," and now this shot 175 yards out of nowhere, out of his wildest dreams had tumbled down out of the blue sky.

Shaun Micheel
Major championship pressure is one thing, but the pressure faced when lives are on the line is another -- just ask Shaun Micheel.

Shaun Micheel had done it. One hundred and sixty-three tour stops, and he hadn't just for the first time won a PGA Tour event, he had won the PGA Championship. All these demons dancing in his mind, all these memories of failure, all these people waiting on his collapse at the cruel, cruel East Course at Oak Hill Country Club, and there was the best of Micheel. Ten years later, there was his best. Again.

It is strange to Micheel the way his nerves forever crept into his consciousness for the game of golf, the way they used to leave him terrified of grand galleries and championship chases on tournament Sundays. His poor past with professional pressure is a fascinating contradiction considering that in the most monumental moment of truth a man could ever meet, Micheel leaped into that lake, risked his life and saved those strangers.

"What I did in that lake seemed a lot easier than what I have to go through out here because I'm battling myself," Micheel said.

Before Micheel had gone on his 10 years of stops and starts, the Buy.com Tour to the Nationwide Tour, South Africa to Q-School, he was walking out of his hotel for the ride to the golf course in New Bern, N.C., in August of 1993. His oldest childhood golfing buddy out of Memphis, a fledgling pro, Doug Barron, was with him when suddenly, they heard the most sickening screech. Out of nowhere, a car had flown over an embankment and splashed into a lake, floating a good 30 feet out.

Behind the windows in the front seat, there were the frightened faces of a 75 year-old husband and wife, the car succumbing to a slow, sure descent underwater. A man working at the gas station next door started swimming for the car, and Micheel and Barron rushed to the banks of the lake. They started to strip down, Micheel down to his orange fish boxer shorts. He wasn't much of a swimmer, but he was so much of a man. Micheel leaped into the water and risked everything for two perfect strangers on the brink of drowning because the woman pressed the accelerator when she meant to hit the brakes.

"I went into the water to about my knees, because if I went any further, I would've drowned too," Barron said by phone from Memphis on Saturday. "Shaun was halfway (to them) already.

"His instincts just took over."

The couple was too frightened to climb out of the car. They couldn't swim. They were terrified. Before long, with a window down, "They just jerked them out the window and carried them back to the shore," Barron said. "It was about the most amazing thing you've ever seen."

Ten years later, there was something else remarkable to see out of Micheel. He didn't do something as noble as save a life at Oak Hill, just a career. Just inspired a legacy. There was this victory, this shot, that had come completely out of nowhere. Finally, there was Micheel, 34 years old now, coming up the hill to the 18th green, climbing and climbing until his cool, collected gait dissipated into to a breathless jog to see the lie on the biggest shot of his life.

He had done it. He had beat back Chad Campbell by two strokes, beat back his demons, beat back that long, lonely and losing road between everybody's All-American at Indiana University and a faceless grinder just trying to hold onto his tour card.

"I was really leaking oil coming down the stretch," Micheel said.

Ten years later, he was still a finisher. He was still a winner. Wherever he goes, however he gets there, he still thinks about the day in North Carolina, in the summer of 1993, when character and courage overcame his fear, when Shaun Micheel never stopped to consider the fatal consequences of failure.

"I couldn't almost fathom that he had actually done that, yet knowing my son's character I felt very proud that he would maybe take a chance on his own life to save someone else," his mother, Donna, said on TNT.

Until Oak Hill, he had never won a PGA Tour event. He had a chance a year ago at the B.C. Open in Binghamton and lost a three-stroke lead on Sunday. "I was a wreck," Micheel said. For so long, everything had been such a struggle for him.

It was always supposed to be so much easier for him. He was a first-team All-America in 1991, when Phil Mickelson was an All-America for Arizona State. He was going to be a big star on the PGA Tour. Everyone was so sure, especially him. Yet for the next several years, Micheel worked his way through the minor league circuits to South Africa, and all the way to his breakthrough tournament, his 1998 victory at the Singapore Open. This has been the long, hard road to holding that Wanamaker Trophy.

"Not everyone gets on tour and is Tiger Woods at a young age," Barron said. "Or Charles Howell. Sometimes, the game has to beat you down before you can get up. That's what happened with him. He got his card at a young age, and thought he was on his way for the rest of his life. It doesn't always work out that way."

"What he went through his first two years on the tour, I don't think he'll say it, but never making a cut helped his character a lot."

Before he had ever stepped on the course Saturday, Barron was on the telephone from Memphis, insisting that if Micheel could just get to Sunday shoulder to shoulder with the leaders, he would win the PGA Championship. Barron had a feeling everything in Micheel's life had prepared him for this moment in time. At Oak Hill, the world was watching and yet, Barron has been there with Micheel when the pressure was real and unrelenting with lives on the line.

Micheel insists that what happened a decade ago never reflected in his golf game, because after all, if it did, he would be contending week after week. Only Sunday, when it mattered most again, Micheel's ultimate resolve showed itself.

This had been a long, winding road from that heroic happening on the lake shore in North Carolina, to chasing the golf bush leagues in Asia and South Africa and United States. Finally, it had stretched all the way to the 18th hole at Oak Hill, to a magnificent shot 175 yards out of the first cut, over the rainbow and beyond his wildest dreams.

"I can't believe this happened to me," Shaun Micheel said.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.