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Jewish World Review August 22, 2000 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5760

Mile Lupica

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Consumer Reports

Best shot just par for course on magical day -- MAYBE the Sunday at the PGA when Tiger Woods beat Bob May and caught Ben Hogan will not be remembered the way we remember the British Open of 1977, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus went toe-to-toe for the last 36 holes, Watson finally needing to finish 65-65 to win by a stroke.

Watson's opponent that weekend was Nicklaus, and Woods's this past weekend was May, who used to be somebody in junior golf in southern California but who has never won on the PGA Tour. Maybe that will make all the difference. It shouldn't. What we saw at Valhalla was one of the greatest one-on-one games of golf that has ever been played, by anybody anywhere.

Tiger Woods was more a champion against Bob May than he was winning his three straight U.S. Amateurs and the four professional majors he had won before, most of them about as exciting as the America's Cup. May did something no one did at the U.S. Open this year and nobody did at the British Open: He showed he had the heart for a fight with the best golfer any of us will ever see.

Woods finally won by a single stroke in a three-hole playoff. He made par out of a bunker in front of the 18th green, on the 21st hole that he and May had played together. Woods made par and became the second man in history and the first since Hogan in 1953 to win three professional majors in the same year.

Tiger Woods made that par after he tried to hit a high hook all the way to Rupp Arena in Lexington. His drive seemed headed for some waist-high green rushes way left of the 18th fairway. But then suddenly the ball was bouncing back toward the tee as if the golf gods had given it a good whack, or if it had landed with more English than Shakespeare in Central Park.

Or maybe it was that kid we saw on television, disappearing from behind that high grass before the ball started going the wrong way. Tim Gilpin was the hole marshall on that side of the 18th, and he would say later that Woods's drive hit a sycamore tree and dropped straight down and then bounced so high that it hit the sycamore again, and that is why it reversed its field and didn't end up in an unplayable lie that might have cost Woods history, and the story and finish most everybody wanted.

"Everybody was around it, but nobody touched it,'' Gilpin told The Associated Press. He said what happened to the ball was "gravity and mother nature.''

So it must have been a trick of television that made us think the kid in the shorts had reached down and come up with the ball like Derek Jeter going into the hole. As strange as the pictures looked, they sure didn't seem to bother anybody at CBS very much. Jim Nantz said that an official had ruled nobody had touched the ball, and Ken Venturi said, "That's good enough for me.''

Woods wasn't supposed to hit it there, hit it crooked the way he had with his drive on the previous hole, when he went wide right. So this became the first moment of Tiger Woods's year that television managed to not cover to death.

Woods chopped it out from near the cart path and put his third in the bunker, and then did what he did down the stretch all day and into the twilight: He made the shot. He put the ball to where he could have kicked it in. And after May just missed a birdie putt that would have kept the splendid day going, the best day of golf in such a long time, Woods tapped in. On the day when he had caught Hogan, he had not let May, an unknown to people who don't follow the European tour, beat him out of a major the way Jack Fleck beat Hogan at Olympic in 1955.

Once Bob May really did hold all the important junior records in southern California. Tiger Woods, as a kid, set out to take out May the way he is now trying to take out Nicklaus and Hogan.

"And that's exactly what he did,'' May said when it was over.

But May gave him all he wanted at Valhalla. Tiger took the first-round lead at Pebble Beach, and the rest of the field seemed to give up. Same at the British Open. Only May stayed with him at a PGA that will always be remembered. He finished 66 and 66 and had it not been for the five-foot putt Woods made on the 72nd green and then two superb up-and-down pars in the playoff, May would have won the Wanamaker Trophy in Kentucky.

Maybe he would have won if he could have made a short birdie putt on the 15th in regulation, right after Woods had made another par save. But he didn't. Woods made that putt because he made every putt he had to. Birdie on the 17th in regulation to tie. That birdie putt on No. 18, only with all the pressure in the world on him. Then a birdie on the first hole of the playoff, after May had nearly holed a miracle pitch from the rough.

When Woods had to roll one close from behind the 17th in the playoff, he did. When he had to make one more bunker save on the last hole, he did. When he had to match May's 31 on the back side at Valhalla to even make the playoff, he did. When the 18-under he and May shot at this PGA wasn't good enough, he made one more birdie and finally that was enough. It isn't fair. Not only does Tiger Woods make shots you've never seen before, he gets bounces you've never seen before.

JWR contributor Mike Lupica is author, most recently, of Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. To comment, click here.


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