Hat Trick

August 19, 2011

This story on Tiger Woods’ win at the 2000 PGA Championship first appeared in the Aug. 28, 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Late on Sunday evening Tiger Woods and his processional toured the grounds of Valhalla Golf Club, attending to some of the obligations that come with making history. Champagne was poured, presentations made and everywhere Woods went he was fussed over as if he were a visiting pasha. One PGA Championship official shadowed Woods’s every move, his only duty being to lug around the oversized Wanamaker Trophy, which Woods had retained for another year by successfully defending his title earlier in the day. Another minion was serving him food, including a plate of cantaloupe and pineapple, a serving of rice and a strawberry Popsicle, all of which Woods scarfed down as he floated from one function to the next.

Amidst the pomp and circumstance Woods wore his usual superstar sheen, his omnipresent smile like an endless row of piano keys, but as soon as he hit the parking lot, something changed. Away from the bright lights and fawning fans his star power seemed to drain away. By the time Woods made the long walk across the parking lot to a waiting stretch limousine, he was walking with a pronounced limp. “My calf is killing me,” he groaned, referring to soreness in his right leg. Settling into the limo, the weight of the world seemed to finally hit him. “Man, I’m tired,” Woods said before disappearing into the night. “It’s been a long day.”

To see a spent and suffering Woods was to be reminded that he’s still flesh and blood, a fact all but obscured by the otherworldly golf he had played over the final day of the PGA. Pushed to the brink by fearless 31-year-old journeyman Bob May, Woods responded with the most clutch performance of an already legendary career. Trailing by two strokes early in the final round, he played the last 12 regulation holes in seven under par to force a three-hole playoff and then won the trophy with a birdie and a pair of bloodless pars.

This was golf to raise the dead, and as Woods’s dominance continues, it has become increasingly apparent that he’s competing only against the ghosts of the game’s greats. For Woods, this PGA was his third victory by a record-low score in a major championship in the past nine weeks, following wins by unprecedented margins at the U.S. and British Opens. He now joins Ben Hogan as the only other player to prevail in three professional majors during a season. Hogan’s hat trick, in 1953, has always ranked alongside Bobby Jones’s Grand Slam in ’30 and Byron Nelson’s ’45 campaign, when Nelson won 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row, as the standards by which a standout season is measured. For nearly half a century none of these performances has been matched, and now, suddenly, these benchmark years all have been surpassed by Woods in 2000. With the thunder of his PGA victory still echoing, it’s time to put into words what Woods has said so eloquently with his clubs: He has wrought the greatest season in golf history.

“Someday I’ll tell my grandkids I played in the same tournament as Tiger Woods,” Hall of Famer Tom Watson said last week. “We are witnessing a phenomenon here that the game may never, ever see again.”

On Sunday, May played like a champion. Woods played like a god, albeit one who got off to a slow start. When he three-putted the 6th hole for his second bogey of the day, Woods found himself in a four-way tie for second, two in arrears of May, who was rousing the specter of Jack Fleck (chart, page 75). Woods rallied with consecutive birdies on 7 and 8 to pull even with May, and a back nine for the ages ensued.

On the par-5 10th both players got up-and-down from the sand for birdie. On 11, May sank a 25-foot bomb for a birdie that propelled him back into the lead. At 12, a brutal 467-yard par-4 that is Valhalla’s number 1 handicap hole, May stuffed an eight-iron from 181 yards to two feet for his third straight birdie. Warming to the chase, Woods drilled a 15-footer to stay one down. Both played brilliant shots into the par-3 14th, and Woods holed his downhill, sidehill 15-foot putt. May stepped up and topped him with a tricky 12-footer. How long could the perfect golf continue? “It was an incredible battle,” Woods said. “We never backed off. Birdie for birdie, shot for shot, that’s as good as it gets.”

The drama heightened at the par-4 15th. May striped a seven-iron to within six feet of the cup, while Woods pulled his approach to the left and played an indifferent putt from off the green. It looked like May might go three strokes ahead with three holes to play. Still away, Woods then buried a big-breaking 15-footer to save par. “I knew if I made mine, it would make his putt a little bit longer,” Woods said later, and sure enough, May blew his birdie chance, his first stumble.

At first blush May seems as drab as the khaki-olive ensemble he wore on Sunday, but beneath that slightly chubby, balding exterior beats the heart of a daredevil with a need for speed. A Southern California native, May owns three motorcycles, including such crotch rockets as a Ducati and a Kawasaki Ninja, and he has piloted speedboats in excess of 120 mph. His game has been hardened by years in exile on the European tour, where he often played for his supper. If May, with that disconcerting hitch in his swing and zero career PGA Tour victories on his résumé, didn’t belong on the same course as Woods, someone forgot to tell him.

Woods finally drew even with a textbook birdie on 17, and on 18, an uphill par-5 of 542 yards, both reached the saddle-shaped green with two mighty blows, setting up long, difficult lag putts. May went first, from the front left, and his nerve momentarily deserted him. He blasted his putt clear off the green, 15 feet above the hole, and when Tiger putted to within six feet, it looked as if the fight might be over. But then May brushed in his ball with alarming ease, and suddenly Woods needed a knee-knocking downhill six-footer to prevent an upset that would haunt him for the rest of his career. Once again, he willed his ball into the cup. “That’s why he’s Tiger Woods,” said May.

The ensuing three-hole playoff. a new format the PGA of America has instituted for its championship beginning this year. seemed anticlimatic, especially after Woods rolled in a 20-footer on the first extra hole, the 16th, to take his first lead since the 2nd hole. Woods’s finger-wagging celebration following his birdie may have been the most animated of his career. He held on to the lead with a scrappy par on 17. out of the rough, off a cart path and into a drainage area. At 18, Woods got up-and-down from the front bunker to seal the win.

Woods’s and May’s four-round totals of minus 18 broke the PGA Championship standard of minus 17 set by Steve Elkington and Colin Montgomerie in 1995, meaning Woods owns or co-owns the scoring record in all four majors. More mind-blowing: Were it not for one bad three-hole stretch in April, we could be enjoying a new Spike Lee movie, Summer of Slam. During the first round of the Masters, Woods double-bogeyed the 10th hole. his approach shot plugging in the greenside bunker. and then tripled the short, dangerous par-3 12th hole, when his eight-iron shot got caught up in the swirling breeze, landed on the bank short of the green and trickled into Rae’s Creek. In the span of three holes he dropped five strokes to par, but with steady play the rest of the way, he finished fifth, six strokes behind winner Vijay Singh.

Woods’s unprecedented play in the majors this year is what gives his season the nod over those of Jones, Nelson and Hogan. Jones’s Grand Slam was vastly different from the modern Slam. Sure, he won the U.S. and British Opens, but he didn’t have to face the era’s top professionals in victories at the U.S. and British Amateurs. As for Nelson’s storied year, he won only the one major that was played that year (the PGA), as the Masters and the U.S. and British Opens were all canceled because of World War II. The fact that Nelson was 4-F because of a blood condition meant that he faced thin fields throughout his record season. (For example, U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Hogan wasn’t discharged until August 1945.) In his signature season Hogan won his three majors by a combined 15 strokes, or put another way, Woods’s margin of victory at this year’s U.S. Open.

Woods’s mastery has extended far beyond the majors. He has seven victories this year, and with the $900,000 payday from the PGA, he has already broken his own single-season earnings record of 1999, with $6,692,821. He’s also on his way to shattering one of the game’s most hallowed records. In golf, the equivalent of Ted Williams’s .406 batting average in ’41 has been Sam Snead’s season-scoring record of 69.23, set in 1950. Woods’s scoring average is now 68.59. The last time Woods failed to break par was on May 11, in the first round of the, ahem, Byron Nelson Classic, a span of 27 rounds.

Woods has even overwhelmed the most discerning of critics. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t understand why we don’t have anybody else playing that well,'” Jack Nicklaus said last week. “I am more understanding now. He’s that much better.”

Woods got an overdue audience with Nicklaus when they were paired for the first time in competition during the first two rounds at Valhalla, a pleasing bit of symmetry as the Olden Bear brought to a close a sentimental season of bidding adieu to each of the major championships, the tournaments that have defined his career. Nicklaus couldn’t keep up with Woods, who wowed his idol with spectacular ball striking, hitting 16 greens in regulation on Thursday and averaging 329.5 yards on his drives. “He shot the easiest 66 today,” Nicklaus said following Round 1. “It looked like a 60. Phenomenal control, phenomenal concentration, phenomenal putter.”

At the U.S. Open, Woods didn’t have a three-putt; at the British Open he didn’t hit a single bunker. With both Pebble Beach and the Old Course playing hard and fast, his victories were models of precision and restraint. At Valhalla, with its generous fairways and receptive greens, Woods clubbed the par-5s (ranging in length from 535 to 597 yards) into submission, birdieing all four on Thursday by reaching the greens with a seven-iron, a seven-iron, a four-iron and a seven-iron. “My gosh, he hits the ball a long way,” Nicklaus said, sounding like a man who had finally found religion.

On Friday, Woods continued the onslaught, birdieing three of the par-5s to anchor a 67. Nicklaus, coping with the death of his mother, Helen, two days earlier, would shoot 77-71 to miss another cut, but on the par-4 13th hole, Tiger and the Bear finally provided the symbolic moment that everyone had been craving. Both played nice approach shots into the hole’s island green, and as they neared the narrow connecting bridge, each man slowed to a halt. Woods motioned with his hand: After you. Nicklaus returned the gesture: No, after you. Woods smiled and then crossed the bridge, in the lead, as always.

Saturday seemed ripe for Woods to turn on the afterburners. It had been hotter than the Gore daughters in the days leading up to the PGA, forcing the Valhalla grounds crew to soak the greens to keep the grass from withering. When a storm blew through in the wee hours of Friday morning, dumping more than three inches of rain, suddenly the fairways were soft and receptive, and the greens downright marshmallowy. Saturday also brought easier pin placements, and the birdies flew fast and furious. José María Olazábal went out early and rang up a scorching 63, tying 18 other players for the lowest score in major championship history.

Though his swing was out of sync early in the third round, Woods scraped around brilliantly, and at the 10th hole he was four under on the day and three shots clear of the field. But he had flown too high on borrowed wings. His shaky ball striking finally caught up with him at 12, where he took a stunning double bogey that trimmed his lead to one over his plucky playing partner, Scott Dunlap. Woods took another bogey at 15, pulling a six-iron 40 yards left into the cabbage. With a clutch two-putt birdie at 18 he regained sole possession of the lead, one ahead of May and Dunlap, who would fade on Sunday with a 75.

So the final round came, and Woods and May had the chance to renew acquaintances. They had grown up 20 minutes apart in Southern California, back in the days when Woods wasn’t the only prodigy. Nearly every Sunday morning for six years, from the time Bob was 11, his parents would schlepp him clear across the Los Angeles basin, from their middle-class neighborhood in La Habra to the rarefied air of Bel-Air Country Club, where Bob had a standing 7 a.m. lesson with Bel-Air’s legendary Eddie (Li’l Pro) Merrins. It’s unusual for an outsider to be accorded such a welcome at Bel-Air, but Merrins saw something special in May, who would more than fulfill the promise. At 16 he played his way into the L.A. Open, becoming the youngest competitor in the tournament’s history (a distinction Woods usurped by a few months, when he was 16). May so dominated the junior golf scene in Southern California that Woods, seven years his junior, says now, “I just wanted to hopefully one day win as many tournaments as he did.”

Bob May, take heart. Yours are hardly the only records that Woods has smashed as he continues to overwhelm golf’s notions of the impossible.