Why classic Valhalla duel with Tiger Woods doesn't weigh on runner-up Bob May

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Why classic Valhalla duel with Tiger Woods doesn't weigh on runner-up Bob May
Why classic Valhalla duel with Tiger Woods doesn't weigh on runner-up Bob May

LAS VEGAS – For more than four hours on that Sunday in the brilliant sunshine of a Louisville, Ky., afternoon 14 years ago, Bob May's mind was a blank.

He played one of the great back nines in major championship history, setting himself up for an historic victory.

The little-known May, who had zero career victories on the PGA Tour and had only played two events in 1999, walked to the 10th tee at Valhalla Golf Club on Aug. 20, 2000, tied for the lead.

He was 13-under par and on the verge of an historic upset after shooting a sensational 31 on the back.

Yet, May didn't win. And, he says, he rarely thinks of it and has no regrets 14 years later.

He lost in a three-hole playoff to Tiger Woods, whose legendary game was at its finest for those two-plus hours down the stretch of the PGA Championship.

"I don't look back or think back," said May, who owns a golf school that bears his name at Silverstone Golf Club, a half-hour ride from the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip.

Bob May watches the ball after hitting during the PGA Championship in 2000. (Getty)
Bob May watches the ball after hitting during the PGA Championship in 2000. (Getty)

"People ask me about it and I'm happy talk about it when they do. It's not a bad memory. I wish I'd won, of course, but I played so solidly. But I don't think too much about it unless someone brings it up."

He pauses for a second, and then begins to laugh. The 96th PGA Championship will be Thursday through Sunday at Valhalla, and suddenly May has once again become news.

"The interest has picked up quite a bit recently," May said. "A lot of you media guys want to talk about it. And that's fine."

It's because of the David vs. Goliath nature of what had occurred. May was a relative no-name who hadn't had so much as a top-10 finish entering the 2000 PGA. He'd missed 28 of 39 cuts on the PGA Tour prior to the 2000 season and wasn't on anybody's radar before the tournament began.

But May was a quality player who simply hadn't gotten a break on the PGA Tour. In 1999, he mostly played on the European Tour, where he had a win and a high number of top-10 finishes.

He went to the PGA filled with confidence, believing he could do well. Of course, no one was paying attention to him, because Woods, arguably the greatest player of all-time, was unquestionably in the midst of his greatest year.

Woods was the defending PGA champion. He'd won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes and the British Open at St. Andrews by eight.

May, against all of the odds, believed.

"I was in a good frame of mind going into that tournament, and the course suited my eye pretty well," May said. "I was patient and I wasn't letting things bother me. I had a ton of confidence in my game.

"The golf course suited my eye, as I said, and I was feeling pretty good. When that happens, you're going to play well."

He'd been paired with Woods in the final round, which set up the dramatic back-nine duel, pitting the young giant of the game against a 31-year-old journeyman scrambling to make a living.

It was the perfect theater for national television, which saw ratings soar during the final two hours of the event.

It was one brilliant shot after another, first May, then Woods, each seemingly outdoing the other.

Bob May hugs Tiger Woods after losing the PGA Championship via playoff. (Getty)
Bob May hugs Tiger Woods after losing the PGA Championship via playoff. (Getty)

May said his secret is one that most of his students have difficulty understanding, and one the media can't accept.

He never let his mind wander, never dreamed of what it might be like to hoist the Wannamaker Trophy.

"I never thought that far ahead," May said. "That was the most pleasing part of it. I was able to stay in the moment. I just played one shot at a time. I know the media hate hearing one shot at a time, but if you don't do that, if you start thinking ahead, you're done."

It's still crazy for players to play with Woods these days, but it was nothing like the halcyon days back in 2000 when the crowds were overflowing and rooting, loudly, for Woods. When Woods would hit a shot, they'd begin racing forward to get the best position for his next one, forgetting that their movement was a distraction to Woods' playing partners.

May, though, was able to keep it all out of his mind and, as he set his goal, concentrate only on the shot he was playing.

He wasn't intimidated by Woods' celebrity or by his otherworldly golf game.

"It didn't matter to me what he'd won or where he won or how much he won by or anything else," May said. "That was all in the past. None of that mattered. He was another player just like me who wanted to win. Besides, I wasn't playing him. I was playing the golf course.

"I'm not afraid to go out and play with anyone. I wasn't afraid to play Tiger, because I was only concentrating on my golf, shot by shot. I respected Tiger and I respected his game, but it's not like he snapped his fingers and his pants went on him. He had to put his pants on the same way we all do."

These days, May spends most of his time at his academy, teaching and sharing laughs with fellow highly regarded instructors Jeff Gallagher, an ex-Tour player, and Michael Fabian.

May's mantra isn't much different now, teaching amateurs hoping to shave that 78 to a 72, than it was when he was at his peak.

"A good player has the ability to forget the bad shots and remember the good ones," May said. "But so many of my students, they'll be on the range and they'll hit five or six balls really well, and they never slow down for a second to think what it was about that shot that they did right. But they hit one bad and they're dwelling on it and wondering what went wrong.

"Well, instead of asking what went wrong on that one bad ball, why not forget about it and ask what you did right on those five or six you hit well?"

May hit virtually ever shot well on the back nine. He finished at 18-under, still tied for the best 72-hole score in PGA Championship history.

Bob May watches the ball after hitting during the 2000 PGA Championship at the Valhalla Golf Club. (Getty)
Bob May watches the ball after hitting during the 2000 PGA Championship at the Valhalla Golf Club. (Getty)

And yet, it wasn't enough. Woods also shot 31 on the back to finish at 18-under, and Woods prevailed in the three-hole playoff.

Woods went on to win The Masters in 2001, meaning he held all four majors at the same time. May went on to be little more than a footnote to history in perhaps the greatest back nine ever played in a major championship.

He's now 45, battling a wonky back, but eager to resume his career. He said he's going to make another run at the PGA Tour before he's 50, then he will consider the Champions Tour.

He had a surprisingly good year in 2000. He didn't play in The Masters in 2000, but was tied for 23rd at the U.S. Open, tied for 11th at the British Open and lost in the playoff at the PGA.

"I can still do it," May said. "I know that."

But neither May, nor anyone else, will probably be able to do it as dramatically as he and Woods did on that Sunday afternoon in Louisville 14 years ago.

It was golf at its finest, two superb players putting on a brilliant show.

Injuries to his back left him unable to play the way he wanted, or was capable, and after 2000, he only had two more top-10 finishes. Regardless of whether he makes it back or not, though, May will always be a part of golf lore.

"It would be nice to have won that, but I played great golf on the back nine of a major on a Sunday, so I don't have any regrets," he said. "I did what I could do and at the end of the day, it wasn't enough to win. But I don't look back and think, 'Oh, if I'd only hit this shot, or done this or that.' I played one shot at a time and when it was over, it was over and they added them all up. You guys [in the media] think about it and talk about it a lot more than I do."

And when the media recounts that dramatic day, it's usually done one shot at a time.

All it was, was one brilliant shot at a time after another until May finally succumbed, losing in a playoff to the greatest player in his greatest year in perhaps his greatest round.

There's no reason to be angry about losing to that.

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