Tiger Woods Is Back at Valhalla, Where Half a Lifetime Ago He Won a Duel for the Ages

The 48-year-old drew a massive following Monday for a PGA Championship practice round on the same turf where in 2000 he defeated Bob May in the midst of the Tiger Slam.
Tiger Woods walked in a birdie putt in a playoff against Bob May in the 2000 PGA Championship.
Tiger Woods walked in a birdie putt in a playoff against Bob May in the 2000 PGA Championship. / Sports Illustrated

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He’s exactly twice the age now that he was then, a middle-aged man playing in the lengthening twilight shadow of his own greatness. The baggy pants and billowy shirt he wore while famously finger-pointing a birdie putt into the hole here in 2000 have been replaced by tighter clothes, layers of muscle and layers of scar tissue. Tiger Woods is back at Valhalla Golf Club, half a lifetime after one of the great performances of his career.

Back then, Woods was 24 years old and at the absolute peak of his powers, on his way to a Tiger Slam of the four major championships. Today he is an achy 48, hoping this week to play 72 holes in a major other than the Masters for the first time since 2020.

Yet even if Woods is a diminished threat to win, he remains the golfer everyone most wants to see. By the weekend our attention likely will be diverted elsewhere in this 106th PGA, but on a practice-round Monday, Woods was the only golfer who drew thousands along for his walk across this rolling bluegrass course east of Louisville, Ky. 

This particular demographic of fans probably doesn't give a rip about LIV Golf or the internal angst of the PGA Tour. The people just want to be near the aging legend as he walked among them—perhaps for the last time at this course.

“You the man, bro,” a Louisville Metro Police officer called out as Tiger walked from the 12th green to 13th tee Monday. The cop exhaled and said out loud, but seemingly to himself, “O.K., I got that out of the way.” This seemed like a box the cop needed to check.

Woods toured the front nine at Valhalla on Sunday. He canvassed the back nine Monday — by himself, no playing partners, though ESPN analyst Andy North joined Woods for the 18th hole. That followed a practice round over the course last week.

Woods was dressed in his new apparel line, Sun Day Red, after 27 years with Nike. 

Woods smiled blandly at the gallery as fans shouted comments, all of which he has certainly heard a thousand times before. He occasionally waved in acknowledgement of applause. He signed autographs for 3 1/2 minutes after his practice was complete. But mostly he was here to work, gathering intel on a course he knows but has changed over the years.

Woods flipped out his yardage book—with a Stanford cover—on every hole Monday. He took copious notes, especially on the greens. Assuredly he had some Valhalla observations from the old days written into the book, comparing then versus now.

The greatest change from 2000 to ’24 is Woods himself, of course. Triumph, scandal, a major car wreck and the mundane passing of time have all left their imprint on the world’s most interesting athlete of the last 30 years.

Woods arrived at Valhalla in 2000 fully deified, seemingly on an inevitable track toward becoming the greatest golfer in history. He’d won four majors to that point, with Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 looming in the distance looking easily surmountable.

He was coming off jaw-dropping victories at historic venues—a perfect U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, a blistering British Open at St. Andrews. Combined margin of victory in those two majors was a staggering 23 shots. Everyone was certain this PGA would be major No. 5.

Tiger Woods watches a shot at the 2000 PGA Championship.
Tiger Woods was taken to the brink at Valhalla in the 2000 PGA Championship but survived for his fifth career major title. / Sports Illustrated

Everyone was right. But it was far more difficult than envisioned, a dramatic playoff victory laced with pressure.

The man who pushed Tiger Woods to the brink of stunning defeat was a nobody. Bob May never won a PGA Tour event and only came close once, on a steamy August weekend at Valhalla against the hottest golfer in the world.

It took 75 holes for Woods to beat May, not shaking free of the journeyman until chasing in a 25-foot birdie on No. 16, the first hole of a three-hole playoff. Before that, May played the best golf of his life from the second round on, putting a pair of 66s on the board on Friday and Saturday to earn a pairing with Tiger on Sunday.

Tiger Woods Sports Illustrated cover 2000, after winning PGA Championship.
The third leg of the Tiger Slam. / Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

Woods led by a shot when they went to the first tee. Dressed in Sunday red, the expectation was that he would quickly put May in the rearview mirror and roll to victory as easily as he had at Pebble and St. Andrews. Instead, the two men delivered a duel that lives in PGA lore.

May birdied the second hole and Woods bogeyed, flipping the leaderboard. Then May birdied No. 4, taking a two-shot lead. Woods tied it up heading to the back nine.

May birdied No. 11 to retake the lead and continued to apply withering pressure with one dart after another into the greens. Woods kept answering, rolling in a short birdie putt on 17 to tie. Heading to the par-5 finishing hole, a staggering upset was in play.

May dropped a 15-footer for birdie, putting Woods in a do-or-die position. Tiger was Tiger in the heat of the moment, dropping a six-footer to send the match into a three-hole playoff. The two men were 18 under par, five shots clear of their closest pursuer.

Woods birdied the 16th, then held on through the last two holes. It was his third straight major victory, and he would complete the Tiger Slam in April 2001 by winning the Masters. There seemed to be no stopping him.

Things happened that stopped him, most of them self-inflicted. Woods reached 14 major victories in 2008, winning the U.S. Open in a playoff on a broken leg, then was felled by scandal in his personal life. He was in the field for the last PGA here at Valhalla in 2014, which was won by Rory McIlroy. Woods failed to make the cut in that appearance.

He woke up the echoes of greatness at the Masters in 2019, then suffered severe leg injuries in a single-car accident in 2021. He’s come back to play periodically, but hasn’t been a factor since then. He might never be again.

Half a lifetime ago, Tiger Woods gave Valhalla its signature moment as a major championship venue. That chapter, at the peak of his career, is over. But he still pulls fans to the gallery ropes when he walks by, hoping for one more glimpse of greatness.


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde covers college sports, the Olympics and horse racing for Sports Illustrated. Pat wrote two books and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his work at SI, Pat is also the co-host of the College Football Enquirer podcast. He is an analyst for the Big Ten Network and contributes to national radio shows. In a career spanning more than three decades, Pat has worked at Yahoo! Sports, ESPN and the Louisville Courier-Journal.