By Nick Totten
At Valhalla Golf Club
History – sporting or otherwise – has so often been defined by the quality and intensity of its greatest rivalries, its battles, and in a golfing sense that has rarely been truer than at the 2000 US PGA Championship.
While parents the world over might tell tales of Valhalla in the context of Norse mythology, they could do worse than regaling their offspring with the story of how one journeyman pro – a golfing David – who nearly took down Goliath, one balmy August afternoon in Kentucky.
By the time Tiger Woods arrived some 20 miles east of downtown Louisville, eight months since the turn of the millennium, he was very much at the peak of his powers and had already claimed two of the season’s previous three Majors.
Not since the great Ben Hogan – in 1953 – had a player achieved such a feat, and few could look past the dominant American, who teed it up at Valhalla Golf Club fresh from a record 15 stroke win at the US Open that June, and an equally dominant display at the Open Championship just a month later.
There were not many then, out of all the great players assembled, who would have expected little-known Bob May to mount a credible challenge for a maiden Major title, but boy would he prove them wrong.
As it turned out, the then 31 year old, would play a crucial role in one of the most dramatic afternoons in US PGA Championship history.
Woods entered the final round a stroke clear of May, and it did not take long for it to become a two horse race, as these golfing thoroughbreds fired one dart after another to set up a festival of birdies. Neither of them could quite pull clear, however, and they would eventually arrive at the 72nd green with putts for a final red number that might just carve out victory.
Up first, May, who waved his flat stick slightly nervously but with sufficient purpose to see the ball set off and turn both left and right before finding the edge of the hole.
Tiger, on a similar line, now had four feet to force a play-off – and in it went.
Cue obligatory fist pump, an enthusiastic high five with caddie Steve Williams, and on to extra holes.
Back to the 16th tee they went.
May would fail to find the green at the par four, but his flair for the impossible would continue from the thick stuff short and right of the green, chopping out an almost picture perfect pitch that rolled up to within a few inches and secure his par.
His opposite number, Woods, had found the putting surface in regulation and was faced with 25 feet across the green to edge a stroke ahead. What followed was yet another iconic moment, in an afternoon of plenty.
The American struck his putt with perfect pace, and as it neared the front of the hole – some three feet short of its destination – Woods set off, finger extended and certain it would find the bottom of the cup, arriving almost as the ball toppled in for an unlikely three.
That birdie would prove crucial, as after a half in par down the 17th, Woods would hit a high, wide and not very handsome three wood from the tee at the last that careered into the galleries down the left of the fairway.
A lucky bounce or two later and he was able to chop back to somewhere near the short grass, but his third would fall short of its target and find the front bunker, as his compatriot and fellow gladiator, May, found his target in regulation, but failed to threaten the hole.
Only the top of the flag remained visible to Woods as he set himself in the bunker, but his touch and feel from the sand had been immaculate all week, and he managed to splash out to mere tap in range.
It was now or never for May, with the Las Vega resident requiring one last roll of the dice, as he rolled his ball up the slope hoping for his number to fall. It looked very good, for an awful long time, but just as all those watching on began to expect the impossible, the ball dived left and finished just inches from the hole.
An effort that had the ample crowds on their feet, every vantage point taken in the natural amphitheatre around the par five last, but it was the final throw of a challenge that all but stunned the golfing world. As it turned out, Woods would tap in to claim a fifth career Major, but no one would ever forget the role May played in one of the game’s great Sundays.
“I think I have a big heart, and people weren’t expecting me to do what I did. I think I proved to them that I can play golf,” said May, who clearly could do more than just ‘play’ this great sport of ours.
For his playing partner, and eventual conqueror, there was elation, but Woods was under no illusions as to the might of the challenge he had overcome.
“It has been a wonderful week, and this was probably one of the greatest duels I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve had a few, but hats off to Bob, he played his heart out,” commended the American, cradling the Wannamaker Trophy in his arms.
Valhalla might be a place of myth – of legend – but on this fateful late summer’s eve, at the turn of a new millennium, the golf world saw something very real. Something it will never forget.