This week’s PGA marks the 3rd time the final major of the golf season comes to the greater Louisville area. Fourteen years ago the event had an encore performance from its first host role in 1996. The scene for that event is vividly remembered as en epic match-up — one pitting the world’s premier player, Tiger Woods, against unheralded journeyman Bob May.
Woods had won the previous two majors in virtuoso performances — claiming the US and British Open titles in the same year. Tiger’s win at Pebble Beach was his first American Open title — winning by an incomprehensible 15 strokes. In a month’s time Woods would claim his first Claret Jug at The Open — winning at The Old Course at St. Andrews by eight strokes and never having played a stroke from any of the numerous bunkers that dot the sacred ground of golf’s most revered layout.
To say Woods was the overwhelming favorite coming into the PGA Championship would be a gross understatement. All of his top tier rivals had failed to demonstrate any real capacity to match shots with Tiger. If anything, his top rivals had shown a clear propensity to go in major reverse when confronted with dealing with Woods.
Entering the final round, Woods led by one stroke over two others — but the contenders behind Tiger were likely known only to their respective families. The odds looked nearly certain Woods would easily defend his PGA title.
Enter the picture of Bob May — one of two players a stroke behind Woods for the final 18 holes.
May and Woods had known each other in competing in various junior golf events when both were in the Southern California area. May would later attend collegiate powerhouse Oklahoma State and was selected for the USA Walker Cup Team in 1991. But the then 31-year-old journeyman was fighting to remain active in professional golf.
No reasonable observer could have envisioned the kind of David versus Goliath battle that ensued when both players made their way to the final 9 holes of Sunday’s closing round. Woods had never lost a lead when ahead in a major on the final day. Few thought that would happen at Valhalla.
May, unlike the other more known contemporaries of Woods, did not flinch down the stretch. In sum — May played Rocky to Woods’ Apollo Creed. May had known Tiger for quite some time so the “awe factor” was not something that impacted him as it certainly had others.
Both men shot stellar five-under-par 31’s on the homeward bound final nine holes. May never blinked — hitting approaches to near perfection and making birdies thereby keeping the pressure on the world’s #1 player.
By the time both men reached Valhalla’s risk/reward par-5 home hole the match was even. May and Woods both had birdie opportunities on the final hole but May’s would come from 15 feet just off the green and above the hole. Unbelievably, May holed the putt and it would be up to Tiger to drain a difficult six-foot downhill putt to force a playoff. Woods made the putt as May would later say, “That’s why he’s Tiger Woods.”
In the three hole aggregate playoff — the first ever for the PGA as the change was made that year from the previous sudden death format — Woods would famously drop a birdie putt at the 1st hole played — the 16th — with his body moving forward pointing the way as his ball dropped into the cup. The two combatants would tie the remaining holes and Woods would add his name as only the second professional golfer to win three major championships in a calendar year.
May would play for a few additional years on various tours but back issues would eventually force him out. The 45-year-old now operates his own teaching academy in the Las Vegas area.
This week’s PGA will be hard pressed to match the heroics Woods and May demonstrated that fine August Sunday from 14 years ago. Each man pushed the other — the quality of the play was nothing short of brilliant. Although one man eventually did lose that day — golf fans from across the globe were witness to a slugfest of epic proportions. David had his slingshot in defeating Goliath — May had little else beyond a belief in his own talents and that dogged effort nearly proved good enough.
Golf has had a number of scintillating closing rounds during major events but the Woods / May confrontation remains just as evocative as it did then — each seeking the famed Wannamaker Trophy on the rolling terrain of Valhalla in Kentucky.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.