It was a Cinderella story, minus the glass slipper.
It was David vs. Goliath, except the giant didn’t wind up dead.
We sports fans like our narratives preserved as fables, the themes painted in broad strokes, the characters cast clearly.
And we got our wish at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, site of what lives on as a folkloric Sunday showdown between Bob May and Tiger Woods
In the popular retelling, May plays the doomed dark horse, a boy soldier with a slingshot, destinated to fight nobly only to fall in battle — an epic tale with a twist we all see coming.
But here’s the thing: the underdog himself never bought into the story.
His opponent didn’t either.
Tiger Woods knew better.
He knew all about Bob May.
In Orange County, Calif., where both men came of age, May was the original alpha golfer, seven years Woods’ senior and an idol of a sort. Unlike Eldrick, he learned the game long after he could toddle, already a grade-schooler when his aunt gave him a starter set of clubs at Christmas.
May’s father didn’t play.
When young Bob asked for golf lessons, his mother, Muriel, asked her son whether such a thing existed.
Yet by his early teens, May had grown into the baddest kid in town. An All-American in high school, he qualified, at 16, for the 1984 L.A. Open, becoming the youngest player ever to compete in the event until Woods claimed the distinction in 1992.
Which was only fitting.
Never at a loss for drive, Tiger relied on May for added motivation, posting the older golfer’s records on his bedroom wall.
“I just wanted to hopefully one day win as many tournaments as he did,” Woods once said.
In college, May shined at Oklahoma State, and went on to earn a spot on the victorious 1991 Walker Cup squad, alongside Phil Mickelson and David Duval. He turned pro three years later, sniffing the top of several leaderboards before claiming the 1999 British Masters. But as the 2000 PGA Championship approached, Tiger wasn’t targeting May’s records anymore.
By then, May was toggling between tours, a junior star turned journeyman. Tiger, meanwhile, was busy being Tiger, winging around on a private jet and performing on an otherwordly plane. He arrived at Valhalla seeking his third consecutive major title. None other than Jack Nicklaus had acknowledged that Woods was playing a game with which he wasn’t familiar.
May, however, made no such concession.
“We were familiar with each other’s games,” he said. “I think he knew that I was a good player. I was playing some good golf, too.”
Rounds of 72-66-66 placed May in the final group on Sunday, paired with Woods, who led by one.
In their fashion choices, the men appeared as mismatched as they did on paper, Tiger in his usual bullfight red, May in an understated earth-toned shirt that some might have mistaken for a white flag of submission.
“A writer said I looked drab and boring,” May recalled later. “I guess I was supposed to wear pink pants.”
Knowing that he couldn’t win on weaponry alone, May never tried to get into an arms race. To Tiger’s first tee bomb, May responded with light artillery, a short rifle shot that landed near a tree that his opponent’s drive had carried. The strategy worked. Despite having all the makings of a slaughter, the round became a dogfight. By the 7th tee, May led by two. Woods rebounded with consecutive birdies. Both players parred the ninth, leading to a closing stretch that endures as lore.
The tale has been told often, but some details bear recounting: May’s three-straight birdies on holes 10 through 12, topping two by Tiger over the same stretch; Tiger’s Houdini up-and-down on the par-4 14th, where May missed a bunny but remained ahead by one.
Still trailing by a shot on the 17th, Woods produced more magic with birdie to draw even. But he needed yet another after May dropped a snaking 15-footer on 18. Tiger, true to form, answered with a tickler, forcing the three-hole playoff in which he finally ended May’s storybook run.
“You played incredible,” Woods whispered to May when it was over, Tiger’s version of Homeric praise.
For May, it wasn’t the final chapter. He played on for a few years before blowing out his back at the 2003 Byron Nelson. He underwent rehab, then mounted a comeback that he has since aborted, reinventing himself as an instructor at the Las Vegas golf academy that bears his name.
As for Woods, every school kid can recite the plotline: scandal, swing changes, back troubles of his own, a deity reduced to mortal standing.
Only if you haven’t done your reading.
That’s how it goes with our sports heroes and the fantasies they spin for us. We follow along gladly, enchanted by the fiction, until reality gets in the way.