May taking the long road back
It might be an easy name to remember -- six letters, the shortest autograph in golf -- but it is a harder one to forget. "Bob May," says the stranger, repeating the name of the man introducing himself at a campsite in Idaho, where May and his family were vacationing recently. The stranger allowed the name to forage around in his mind for a moment, until it evoked the memory that rendered it familiar: the 2000 PGA Championship, Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, the playoff with Tiger Woods.
History might have eluded May, but it has not ignored him, choosing to bestow a measure of enduring fame for his starring turn in a supporting role. Apparently, there are no other roles available in the era of Tiger Woods, but May made the most of his. Without his contribution -- forcing the game's preeminent artist to discover new flourishes to render yet another masterpiece -- Woods' victory would have been merely remarkable. May allowed it to become memorable.
So it is that even in an obscure recreational outpost, sans golf togs and Ping hat and five years hence, May is recognized, in the process betraying one of sport's bedrock principles, that no one remembers who finished second.
"I still hear comments about it," says Tom Sargent, head professional at Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa, Calif., who along with Eddie Merrins has been May's mentor throughout his career. "When his name comes up, people say, 'That was really something, wasn't it?' It was Ali-Frazier standing there going at it. It was one of those moments you wouldn't have wanted to miss."
May, 36, is appropriately flattered, though he does not want his name perpetually consigned to the past tense, as it seems to have been. Is that where his story ends, Aug. 20, 2000, on the 18th green at Valhalla? Good question. In the meantime, he's working on an answer.
There are par 3s shorter than the motor home parked outside his house in a gated community in the foothills above Las Vegas. The Mays -- Bob and his wife, Brenda, and their kids, Trenton, 7, and Madelyn, 4 -- had returned from their Idaho trip only the day before, and the massive RV carried substantial loads of toys, clothes and books that had been transferred into the home, creating the requisite post-trip mess. Conspicuous among the travel clutter, leaning against a wall, was May's putter.
He is plotting his return. "If I can come back healthy," he says, "I can win. Not taking anything away from the guys out there, but I feel I've got the game."
May last played a competitive round May 18, 2003, the final round of the Byron Nelson Championship. "I got hurt on the 18th tee," he says. "I felt it go right then." The intensity of his pain, however, did not square with the diagnosis: two bulging disks in his back. Over time, doctors concluded that, in addition to the bulging disks, May's spinal nerve canal was half the size of a typical male's, pinching the nerves when he coiled.
In February 2004, May had surgery to repair the discs and to widen the spinal nerve canal. Ten weeks of bed rest preceded an additional year of inactivity. Only this past May did he return to the golf course, albeit tentatively.
"It was hard," he says. "I went more than two years without playing a round of golf. I tried to go to the gym every day and work out and get myself in better shape and stay loose. I got the family life going. Other than that, it was driving me crazy. I wasn't doing what I enjoy doing most in life."
May's plan calls for practice all this month and into September, after which he will attempt to play a few Nationwide Tour events to gauge the state of his game. He says he won't try returning to the PGA Tour until 2006; he has a major medical exemption that will permit him to play in 15 tournaments on a space-available basis, and he needs to earn $353,187 in them to retain full tour playing privileges.
Meanwhile, Sargent made the trek to Las Vegas last week to assess May's game. To do so, he enlisted a promising Nationwide Tour player and a talented mini-tour player to engage him and May in a friendly match at the TPC at the Canyons. "A whacked-out old club pro and a broken-down tour pro beat the snot out of them," Sargent says. "Bobby shot 67. I don't think he sniffed a bogey. He hit it stiff 14 times. He looked better than the 2000 Bobby. Obviously something was going on even back then [with his back]. His rotation now is really good. When I last saw him, it was hard for him to make a good turn."
The easy part for May has always been hitting the ball, and for this exercise, he only has to dial in muscle memory, circa 2000. The summer before, he had defeated Colin Montgomerie down the stretch to win the British Masters, and his confidence was soaring. He told Sargent in December of that year that he might win a major in 2000. "I'm pretty sure you can, too," Sargent replied.
"I really thought he could," says Sargent today. "I've always thought he was one of the best iron players I ever laid eyes on. He had incredible distance control, and he had no fear."
May tied for 23rd in the U.S. Open and tied for 11th in the British Open. He opened the PGA Championship with a 72, then followed that with a pair of 66s and a phone call to Sargent.
"Are you that good?" Sargent asked him.
"Yep," May replied.
"Did you get the pairing you wanted?"
May's Sunday pairing was with Woods, the leader by 1 over him and Scott Dunlap, neither of whom ostensibly posed a credible threat to Tiger's assault on history. Woods had won the U.S. Open by 15 shots, the British Open by 8 and, considering the level of competition he faced in the final round, seemed destined to win this Kentucky derby by several furlongs.
What ensued instead, notably over the final nine holes, was a riveting demonstration of skill enhanced by sheer stubbornness from two players determined not to lose. Woods later called it one of the greatest duels of his career. "We never backed off from one another. Birdie for birdie, shot for shot, we were going right at each other. That's as good as it gets."
May erased the 1-stroke deficit on the front nine, then each of them played the back nine in 5-under-par 31, May concluding with a third straight 66, Woods with a 67. Each of them established the PGA Championship record at 18 under par. On the 18th and final hole of regulation, the players tied, each hit the par 5 in two shots, then missed eagle putts by uncomfortable margins, six feet long for Woods, 15 feet long for May. "I thought, 'Gosh, how could you do that to yourself?,' " May says. " 'You work this hard all day to get yourself in this position, then you do that.' "
He was not appreciably happier with his next effort, a downhill birdie putt he was certain he had left short. Yet the ball kept trickling toward the hole, ultimately tumbling in to throw the onus on Woods. May responded with a simple, understated fist pump, to the chagrin of some of his supporters; they suggested that he ought to have staged a theatrical celebration then and there, to get into Tiger's head. "That's not my game," May says. "I was taught by two coaches [Sargent and Merrins] who not only teach golf but teach etiquette that golf is a gentleman's game."
At any rate, it was inconceivable in those days that Woods would ever miss a critical putt. "I never once thought that he was going to miss," May says. "I never thought I'd just won the PGA. I thought, 'We're going to a playoff.' "
At that point, May began to prepare mentally for sudden death and the tee shot at 18. When Woods predictably, though dramatically, topped May's birdie putt, they repaired to the scoring trailer, where May learned for the first time that the PGA had instituted a three-hole playoff, beginning at 16. "It was like getting caught off guard with a left hook," May recalls. "What do you mean three more holes? I'm done. I'm tired. Let's get this thing over with."
May was unable to regroup. He hit a pitiful tee shot at 16 and came up 50 yards short of the green with his second, though he nearly holed his third for birdie. Woods, meanwhile, hit his second onto the green, then chased his 20-foot birdie putt to the hole, film footage for posterity, and pulled the ball from the bottom of the cup nearly before it had settled, gaining the advantage. When each of them parred the final two holes, it was game, set, match and history to Woods, who had won his third straight major championship.
"The hard thing was that at the beginning of the day, I was giving the best player in the world a one-shot lead," May says. "It was great I was able to knock that one shot off. But I needed to knock two of them off."
He has watched tape of the final round on five or six occasions, each time reinforcing for himself two elemental beliefs -- that he could not have squeezed more from this, the round of his life (under the circumstances) and that it was not a fluke. "That's the kind of golf I can play," he says. "It was a good time in my career. Not many people remember [who finished] second, but because of the way it took place, people will always remember it. They probably remember it just as much as if I'd won it."
John Strege is a senior writer for Golf World magazine