Even now, 20 years down the road, the thrill lingers. A sticky, late-summer Sunday at Valhalla Golf Club on the outskirts of Louisville, Ky. Tiger Woods, having won the two previous major championships, is chasing a third in a row at the PGA Championship. Bob May, a SoCal kid Woods sought to emulate years earlier, has arrived like an uninvited guest at one of history’s intersections.
It was as unlikely as it was unforgettable.
Two decades later, most of us know the story the way we recognize parts of The Godfather.
May holing a 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, watching as it slowly weaved back and forth before tumbling in, forcing Woods to hole a 4-footer to go into a three-hole playoff. Woods, on the first extra hole, pointing his birdie putt in the hole, practically sprinting behind his ball like a wave chasing a swimmer to the shore.
And, finally, the sense when it was over and Woods had won his fifth career major and was three-quarters to the Tiger Slam, that this one was different.
The 2020 PGA Championship would have been played this week under normal circumstances. Since we are under anything but normal circumstances, it’s as good a time as any to look back at the PGA that remains seared into the minds of all who saw it.
It wasn’t necessary to be on site at Valhalla to feel it – the buzz was transmitted around the world – but being there was like seeing the Grand Canyon in person for the first time. It’s almost too big.
Walking away that Sunday as the sun set and the impact of the drama burrowed deeper inside, it was like leaving a concert that no one wanted to end, the music still thumping inside you.
Two decades on, it’s still there.
Mention the PGA Championships Woods won in 2006 and 2007 and what comes to mind? Hmmm…
For all of the challengers in Woods’ career – from Phil Mickelson to Vijay Singh, from Ernie Els to David Duval – his most famous duel came against a guy whose career highlight is how he almost beat Woods at Valhalla.
That’s right, he won at Medinah in 2006 (where he also won in 1999) and he won the next year at Southern Hills where it was about 200 degrees and he lipped out a putt to shoot the first 62 in major championship history – but that took some digging.
Valhalla in 2000?
The duel with Bob May.
It pops up the way hearing certain songs provoke instant memories.
Think about it for a moment. For all of the challengers in Woods’ career – from Phil Mickelson to Vijay Singh, from Ernie Els to David Duval – his most famous duel came against a guy whose career highlight is how he almost beat Woods at Valhalla.
Back problems – how’s that for irony when Woods is part of the discussion? – bedeviled May and ultimately put a premature end to his career. But May, who finished third three times on the PGA Tour, remains an eternal part of Woods’ career highlight reel.
“No one remembers who finishes second, but in that tournament, everybody does,” May told me when we talked about his Valhalla moment a few years ago.
That’s part of why the 2000 PGA Championship lives on like a family story.
It was more than Sunday, though.
The story began earlier in the week when Woods was grouped with Vijay Singh and Jack Nicklaus for the first two rounds in what was the Golden Bear’s final PGA Championship appearance. It had a ceremonial feel to it except that Nicklaus, 60 years old at the time, saw it as another major championship, not a sentimental farewell.
Woods understood the moment and on Friday, as Nicklaus chased the cut line, Woods looked outside himself. When the two men arrived at a narrow bridge on the 13th hole that day, Woods waited for Nicklaus and gestured for him to go ahead. Nicklaus declined and insisted Woods be the first across.
When they reached the par-5 18th hole in the second round, Nicklaus needed magic to make the cut. Needing to hole a 100-yard wedge shot for a closing eagle, Nicklaus almost did it – missing by 18 inches as the crowd chanted, “Jack, Jack, Jack” one last time at the PGA Championship.
By Sunday, when the final round began, it felt like Woods’ championship to win. He held a one-stroke lead over May and Scott Dunlap, was two clear of J.P. Hayes and three ahead of Greg Chalmers. Take Woods’ name off that list and it looked like the leaderboard at the old Michelob Championship at Kingsmill.
The only question was: Could someone play David to Tiger’s Goliath?
It was May.
On the par-4 first hole, May – playing with Woods – hit a solid tee shot down the middle of the fairway, maybe 275 yards. He was surprised to see Woods pull his opening tee shot so far to the left only to realize Woods had hit it there intentionally, cutting a corner and taking on a tree that May played away from. That was the difference in how they played.
On the back nine, both May and Woods shot 31 coming in. Woods had to birdie four of the last seven holes to force the playoff. Being there, watching and listening, it was as if everything else fell away. All that mattered was what Woods and May were doing and the tension increased with every swing.
What separated this battle was the brilliance of their golf. The Kentucky countryside practically vibrated as the players marched toward the finish.
When he sees highlights from that Sunday now May remembers every bit of it but says he doesn’t get the same vibes. How could he?
“It’s fine,” May told me. “I have no disappointment at all. It’s not as if I gave it away. In the playoff, he birdied one hole and I didn’t. And I ended up losing.”
Twenty years later, the story is still about Bob May and what he did that day against the great Tiger Woods.
Do you remember what Woods said that Sunday when it was finally over?
“That was as good as it gets right there,” he said.
It still is.
Tiger Woods and Bob May embrace after it was all over at Valhalla 20 years ago at the PGA Championship. Photo: Jeff Haynes, AFP via Getty Images
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?