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May's days

His PGA Championship playoff with Tiger Woods has put Bob May in the spotlight.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000

PALM HARBOR -- The magnitude of what he accomplished two months ago is not waning, as Bob May realized again the other night at the airport. Strangers approached him to shake his hand, pat him on the back, thank him for the show he put on at the PGA Championship.

Even in defeat, May has been immortalized for taking Tiger Woods to the brink before losing by a stroke in a three-hole playoff.

Fans congratulated him in the wee hours the next morning at the Louisville airport and as he changed planes in Cincinnati. When he drove to his Las Vegas neighborhood, he saw children had hoisted a homemade banner that read, "This is the Subdivision Bob May Lives In, The PGA Runner-Up Champion."

Some 200 phone messages awaited, handed to him by his wife, Brenda, who was soon to give birth to the couple's second child. By the next day, their listed phone number had to be changed.

May barely had a break when he was off to Reno for the Reno-Tahoe Open. There, while eating dinner at a restaurant with friends, May was surprised to learn that a man at the bar had picked up the entire $200 tab. The man sent over a note that read, in part, "Thank you for stepping up and making it a great tournament. It's about time somebody stepped up and challenged Tiger."

The man left before May could find him.

These days, May is having trouble being that elusive. He has become a star attraction at PGA Tour events, including the Tampa Bay Classic, which begins this morning at the Westin Innisbrook Resort.

"My life has changed a lot," May, 32, said. "Before, I used to come out and play practice rounds and never have to worry about what I had to do after I was done. But this is a good problem to have. You've obviously done something right.

"(But) I'm really surprised. Even (Monday night), sitting at the airport, I had a couple of people come over and say, "Good playing at the PGA.' It's nice to have people come up and say things like that."

Gone is the anonymity that had followed May for much of the past decade as he tried to find his game while playing on tours around the world.

Once an accomplished junior player in southern California, May struggled as a pro to fulfill his promise. So dominating was May in California that Woods, another Californian, admitted after the PGA that his goal as a junior was to break all May's records.

During the final round of the PGA, Woods and May played together for the first time, producing a riveting duel in which both shot 5-under-par 31 on the back nine. May finished with three straight 66s. The tournament drew the second-largest television audience in PGA Championship history and likely will go down as having one of golf's greatest finishes.

Woods earned his third consecutive major championship and the fifth of his career, but May earned respect.

"When you are doing it, you are not thinking about it," said May, who did not watch a tape of the entire final round until last week. "When I watched it, I thought, "This is pretty exciting to watch and know that you're out there performing in front of all those people.' You don't realize how many people are out there when you are playing and concentrating.

"That was the fun thing, watching the putt on 18 because you could see all the people as the camera panned down the fairway. As it went in, it was like a volcano erupted. Everyone just started jumping up and down. It was a lot of fun to watch that."

For a millisecond, May let his mind wander. Woods faced a 6-foot putt to tie, and if he missed, May would be the PGA champion. "But I knew Tiger would make it," May said. "That's why he's Tiger."

There was a time May was like Tiger. In 1983 he became the first 15-year-old to qualify for the U.S. Amateur since 1955, when Jack Nicklaus did it. He led Oklahoma State to the 1991 NCAA title and earned a spot on the Walker Cup team, with David Duval and Phil Mickelson.

He spent his first full professional season in Asia, then made the Nike Tour in 1993, where he finished fourth on the money list to secure his PGA Tour card. But he tried to play through a back injury in 1994, won just over $31,000 and failed to keep his card.

May was back in Asia in 1995, then on the European PGA Tour in 1996. Not until last year did May begin to play like he did in the old days. He finally tasted the first victory of his pro career, beating Colin Montgomerie to capture the British Masters, and finished 11th on the European Order of Merit with $618,197.

He was not assured of a place on the PGA Tour this year, however, until he made it through the qualifying tournament, where he finished 13th.

"Things happen for a reason," May said. "I think it made me a better person. I appreciate what I've got now. I feel very fortunate to be where I'm at. I think I did before, too, but when you hit a low, it really makes you look back and realize what you had.

"I started out all right; then I lost my card and struggled there for a couple of years. ... Now to come back here and play how I am now is satisfying to me. I'm glad to have the opportunity."

Although he has not won, May was having a solid year before the PGA. He finished 23rd at the U.S. Open, 11th at the British Open and second at the St. Jude Classic, where he played in the final group with winner Notah Begay. The week after the PGA, where he earned $540,000, he finished third in Reno to make another $204,000.

And that's when May really knew he had arrived. Because of allergies and ear problems, May decided to withdraw from the Air Canada Championship in Vancouver the next week. He called the tournament to express his regrets but was stunned to hear the response.

"They thought, "Oh, he's too big for us now,' " May said. "They thought I was pulling out because I had played well the previous two weeks. But because of my ears, I couldn't fly."

Two weeks earlier, nobody would have known if May had opted out of a tournament.

Now, he's big news.

And for a big reason.

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