Long-shot Micheel produces a shot for the ages
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- When Shaun Micheel arrived at Oak Hill Country Club last Tuesday for the 85th PGA Championship, all he wanted to do was make a cut. Some time between his arrival and Sunday evening, Micheel transformed. To win the PGA, it wasn't enough for him to show a gambler's guts or wield a laser for a putter. No, Micheel sealed the first victory of his journeyman career with a shot for the ages.

Shaun Micheel
Shaun Micheel pumps his fist after making the clinching tap-in birdie on the 18th.

Holding a one-shot lead, in the short left rough 174 yards from the 72nd hole, Micheel rifled a 7-iron that headed straight at the pin tucked in the left front corner of the green.

"I aimed just to the right of that pin," Micheel said. "I figured anything to the right and to the back would give me a chance to make a par. I was thinking of par."

Instead, the ball bounced twice and rolled to a stop two inches from the pin. Micheel hit a shot right out of the Jerry Pate Clutch Manual. At the 1976 U.S. Open, protecting a one-shot lead, Pate sent a 5-iron 194 yards that rolled to a stop three feet from the cup. You could fuel a barroom discussion well into the night on which major-winning shot holds more truck.

In both cases, a son of the South made a major championship his first PGA Tour victory.

Micheel tapped in for the birdie that gave him an even-par 70 for the round and a 72-hole score of 4-under 276, two strokes better than Chad Campbell. Micheel won a check for $1,080,000, a lifetime pass into the PGA Championship field, a five-year exemption for the PGA Tour and the other three majors, and all of those are merely wrapping paper on the biggest prize of all.

A guy who had beaten himself up for a year because he couldn't hold a three-stroke lead in the 2002 B.C. Open just proved himself on one of the biggest stages in golf.

"I'm very surprised to be up here," the 34-year-old said at his press conference, the Wanamaker Trophy gleaming on the table in front of him. "I've been to a lot of places. My first couple of years on tour, I was just trying to keep my card. I was just trying to survive."

Micheel had his omens. Ben Curtis, another unknown, won the British Open a month ago. Another golfer comes to mind who won his first major at age 34: Ben Hogan. At the 1968 U.S. Open on this East Course at Oak Hill, Lee Trevino made his first victory a major. And in 1956, another graduate of Christian Brothers High in Memphis, Dr. Cary Middlecoff, won the U.S. Open here.

After a week of humid, thick conditions, Sunday unfolded like a postcard. If every day in upstate New York were like this, Florida would still be a swamp. Micheel's golf did not match the weather. He made five birdies and five bogeys. But he never trailed. Every time Micheel had the chance to crumble, he responded with a great shot.

He broke the 54-hole tie with Campbell when he birdied No. 1 and Campbell bogeyed. After that, the only time Micheel shared the lead came when he bogeyed No. 8 to fall to 3-under and into a tie with Tim Clark of South Africa. That bogey helped Micheel win the tournament.

His drive stopped under a young oak in the left rough. Micheel, bent over at the waist, nestled himself beneath the branches, and punched the ball toward the fairway. It stopped in thick rough on the apron of a fairway bunker. With the ball slightly above his feet, Micheel slashed a 7-iron that ran up onto the green and stopped 15 feet from the cup. What could have been a double bogey or worse became a feel-good bogey.

Clark almost immediately made three consecutive bogeys to start the back side. He finished alone in third at 279. When Campbell birdied No. 13 to go to 2-under and close within one shot of the lead, Micheel felt like he had to make something happen. At No. 14, a 323-yard hole to a raised green guarded by bunkers, he pulled his driver.

The hole may look drivable, but no one made an eagle there all week. Over the green is jail -- Micheel hit his second shot back there Friday and made double bogey. He decided that was a greater risk than anything that could happen with the driver in his hand.

"I just felt like I had to make a birdie there," he said.

Micheel landed his drive on the green, 40 feet away. He earned his reward with the only two-putt birdie anyone made in the final round. When Campbell bogeyed the hole, Micheel's lead stretched to three shots.

"I thought it was pretty much done," Micheel said.

While he composed his victory speech, Campbell birdied No. 15, making a 25-foot bomb, and Micheel made a bogey. Back to a one-shot lead. Micheel birdied No. 16, but gave that cushion back with a bogey at No. 17. All of which set the stage for the best 7-iron he'll ever hit.

"I was in a pretty good spot there," Micheel said. "I know Chad had a really good angle to the pin. I had 161 yards to the front, a little bit into the wind, a little bit left-to-right, with a perfect lie. It was an absolutely perfect, perfect number. I knew it was pretty close. I asked somebody how close it was, and they weren't paying attention or didn't really care to tell me."

Micheel jogged up the incline to the green, saw his ball two inches from the cup, took off his cap and waved to the crowd.

"That's pretty good to hit up there where it's a no-brainer," said Campbell, whose third second-place finish of the year earned a check for $648,000. He is now ninth on the money list with more than $2.5 million. "It's nice to have a kick-in for the win."

It's been this kind of career for Micheel: the only similar shot he could think of was a 6-iron he holed from the fairway that allowed him to make a cut on the T.C. Jordan Tour, now known as the Hooters Tour. As Micheel -- who jumped to 14th on the money list with the win -- waited to tap in, he thought about his wife Stephanie, six months pregnant with their first child, and walking in his gallery. He thought of that B.C. Open and "not closing the deal." And he has just begun to think of what it means to be the PGA champion, to win a major that began with 96 of the top 100 players in the World Golf Ranking.

"It's kind of scary, really," Micheel said. "Up till maybe a month or two ago, I was trying to keep my card." He looked at the big, two-handled silver cup alongside him. "To have my name on that trophy, I don't really know what I'm thinking right now."

He's got a lifetime to figure that out. Micheel will always be the 2003 PGA champion.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.