This week, the PGA touring pros will decide the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky, as they did in 2000. Fourteen years ago it was the great champion against the great upstart, at least to those watching on TV. Magic was made.
The magicians were Eldrick Tont Woods, known as Tiger, and Robert Anthony May, known as, well, hardly known at all, at least not by those watching on TV.
Woods and May kept pulling rabbits and these awesome approach shots and clutch putts from out of their hats and golf bags.
It went on for 18 holes like that on Sunday, and then it went on for three holes in a playoff.
When the golfing sleight-of-hand finally ended, Tiger had won, and Bob May had won, too, because when Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi spoke with him on TV afterward, they said his duel with Tiger was the greatest they’d ever seen.
Golf people remember where they were when Tiger and Bob May made magic at Valhalla. Even casual fans of the sport remember where they were.
I was watching from the living room couch with the blinds drawn.
This was mostly because the sun was shining in, but partly because I didn’t want anybody to think I was home, lest they knock on the door and interrupt the drama.
Watching Tiger and May engage in their epic game of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Better)” was like watching Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe do it at Wimbledon in 1980, only without the scruffy facial hair and the swear words for the chair umpire. Except by then most people had heard of McEnroe.
Tiger vs. the upstart May was so thrilling that the next week I tuned in to watch a few holes of the WGC-NEC Invitational, though there was a ballgame on.
Today, Tiger and May are mostly injured a lot, because there’s a lot of torque involved with hitting a golf ball on the straight and narrow for 300 yards or more, and a lot of torque can mess up your back. May, 45, is a longtime resident of Las Vegas. He talks about making a comeback, but he mostly teaches golf now. He runs the Bob May Golf Academy out of Silverstone Golf Club with a satellite office opening in Hawaii.
He doesn’t dwell on the past. But he’ll talk about his showdown with Tiger if you ask, and this week, with the PGA Championship returning to Valhalla, I must have been the 1,001st person to ask.
“Obviously it was a great time in my golfing career,” May said. “It kind of keeps me motivated to get back out and keep going, you know. I’m trying to get back out, but sometimes my body won’t cooperate.”
But if he doesn’t get back out on tour, he’ll always have Valhalla in 2000, and he’ll always have 1,001 people who want to ask about it.
They’ll ask about the drama, about challenging Tiger like Tiger had never been challenged till then. They’ll ask about clutch putts for birdie and other putts that curled into the hole to save par; they’ll ask about approach shots that covered the stick with the flag on it.
They’ll ask about his third shot on 16, on the first playoff hole.
With Tiger’s ball already on the green in birdie range, you could only see the top of May’s ball at rest among tall blades of grass a good way from the hole.
It was time to pull another rabbit from out of the hat, time to pull another incredible shot from out of his … um, golf bag.
After receiving a delicate smack from May’s club, somebody in the gallery shouted his ball should “Get in the hole,” which is what somebody always shouts, and then the announcer said this one had “good speed on it, really good speed on it …”
Bob May’s great golf shot with the good speed on it curled toward the hole as if it might go in. It stopped tap-in distance short. The gallery roared.
“Yeah, that chip shot was a very good shot,” May would say 14 years later. “It came out just perfect. It landed up on that top knoll and rolled down and picked up a little speed and made it up to that next shelf.”
Did he think it might go in?
“N-o-o-o-o,” May said, his voice raising over those final O’s, as if upon further review he was leaving the door open for even more magic. “But it got a lot closer than I think anyone else thought it was going to get.”
On the replay, you can see Tiger crouching to line up his birdie. He appears to mouth something when May strolls within earshot. But with the gallery roaring like that, earshot was not attainable.
May: “He probably just said, ‘Great shot.’ ”
Tiger made his birdie putt, and he knew he had made it, and so he traced after it on tiptoes. And when it went in, he pointed at the cup. You probably remember the picture.
That was basically where the magic ended, unless you count Woods’ tee shot on the final playoff hole that hit miles left but took this high, crazy bounce off the cart path, almost as if the golfing gods had thrown his ball back into play.
Sometimes even the great ones get lucky.
So May finished second.
They say people don’t remember the guy who finished second, but people remember Bob May.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.