Bob May is standing over the most important putt of his life, a
15-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole of the 82nd PGA
Championship. His palms are sweaty, his mouth dry. All the air
has seemingly been sucked out of the large crowd on hand,
producing a thunderous silence. Slowly, agonizingly, May's ball
tracks toward the hole, and as it tumbles out of sight, a rousing
cheer ripples through the Las Vegas City Council chamber. May,
huddled over a TV with the mayor at the front of the expansive
room, turns to the 100 or so in attendance and offers an
embarrassed smile and a sheepish, halting wave.
Seventeen days after he sank that momentous putt, May is being
feted by his adopted hometown with a splashy ceremony at city
hall. Ordinarily as emotionless as a Buckingham Palace guard, May
will say after the ceremony, "Sure, I was a little choked up. The
magnitude of this honor really got to me. I guess what happened
at the PGA was a bigger deal than I thought."
What happened at the PGA was that Tiger Woods won a golf
tournament, while May won the hearts of a nation of fans. May is
such an unassuming guy that he has always had a listed phone
number, and in the 24 hours after the PGA he was swamped with
about 200 calls. Shortly thereafter May was at dinner and an
anonymous fan picked up his bill, sending over a note that said,
"It was about time somebody stepped up and challenged him." Back
home in Las Vegas, May pulled into a car dealership and wound up
posing for pictures with the entire starry-eyed staff.
Described by his wife, Brenda, as "a boy with toys," May, 31,
drove off the lot that day with a shiny new truck--deeply
discounted--and in the heady days since the PGA he has also pulled
the trigger on plans to build his dream boat, a 28-foot,
twin-engine, 1,000-horsepower speed demon that should exceed 150
mph, not to mention $200,000. But don't worry, May can cover it.
The $540,000 he won at the PGA was nicely supplemented by the
$204,000 he earned the next week with a third-place finish at the
Reno-Tahoe Open. Four weeks ago, May signed on to represent a
fancy new country club outside Vegas, and he and the sharpies at
International Management Group continue to mull offers large and
small. As if dealing with newfound fame and fortune weren't
enough, post-PGA the Mays have also celebrated their eighth
wedding anniversary, thrown a birthday party for their son,
Trenton, who turned three on Sept. 14, and prepared for the birth
of their second child, Madelyn, who was born on Sept. 25. With
typical understatement, May says, "It's been a little crazy."
With a smile he adds, "But a good crazy."
October 15, 2000
May is determined to enjoy the whirlwind, because he's an
overnight sensation who has been two decades in the making. May
was introduced to the game by an aunt and uncle at age eight, and
within a year he had won his first tournament. (He still has the
trophy to prove it.) He got his cool under fire from his father,
Jerry, who was an amateur drag racer in the early 1960s and for a
couple of years held a national speed record for gas-fueled
sedans. Later in life Jerry began racing boats as a hobby, and
little Bob picked up his dad's verve for velocity. At seven he
asked for, and received, a Honda dirt bike for Christmas. Soon,
however, the bike was gathering cobwebs, as was all of his soccer
and baseball gear. Bob had thrown himself into golf, often
hitting eight to 10 buckets of balls a day at the Golden Tee Golf
Center in Buena Park, Calif. (Eventually he would get a job at
the range so he wouldn't have to pay for balls.)
In 1983 he became the first 15-year-old to qualify for the U.S.
Amateur since 1955, when a chubby kid named Nicklaus did it. At
5'6 1/2" and 135 pounds, May was already a pugnacious player,
relying on straight driving, precise iron play and an almost
unhealthy focus. May sprouted exactly a half inch in college, but
his game matured dramatically as he led Oklahoma State to the
1991 NCAA championship and earned a spot on one of the great
Walker Cup teams in history, alongside David Duval and Phil
Mickelson, among others. May went 3-1 in the U.S. victory, and
shortly thereafter he turned pro.
May's longtime coach, Eddie Merrins, the head pro at Bel-Air
Country Club, helped put together potential financial backers
from among his well-heeled membership, including radio
personality Rick Dees. On a fall day in '91 May showed up for an
audition. From Bel-Air's elevated 1st tee the gorgeous UCLA
campus shimmered in the distance, and "I could have sworn when
Bob hit the ball it was going to land on the roof of Pauley
Pavilion," Dees recently told the Los Angeles Times. "I was
stunned. He just throttled the earth, and I heard Chinese voices
coming out of this hole." In the end 10 Bel-Air regulars, among
them Dees and actor Joe Pesci, shelled out a total of $75,000.
May was on his way.
Alas, he played like my cousin Vinny at that year's Q school and
soon thereafter lit out for the Asian tour, though not before
getting engaged to Brenda. They had met two years earlier in the
parking lot at Eskimo Joe's, a noted Stillwater, Okla., watering
hole. With Brenda still finishing her degree in elementary
education at Oklahoma State, May spent 12 weeks in Asia all by
his lonesome. "It was a rude awakening," he says. "It wasn't what
I wanted to do or where I wanted to be." Among the many
eye-openers for May was stumbling upon villagers bathing in the
on-course water hazards.
May landed on the Nike tour in the fall of 1992 and had some
encouraging results. In '93 he hit his stride, finishing fourth
on the Nike money list and securing his playing privileges on the
big Tour. That August he and Brenda bought a house in Summerlin,
a bucolic planned community on the outskirts of Las Vegas. May,
finally, was on his way.
Until, that is, he suffered a back injury early in 1994. He tried
to play through the pain, with disastrous results. For the season
May missed a numbing 14 cuts by a single stroke, winning only
$31,079. "You start doubting yourself instead of believing in
your abilities," he says. "Once you do that, you might as well
pack it in."
May returned, tail between his legs, to Asia in 1995 and finished
fourth on the Asian money list. Still, he felt so adrift that he
took the last eight months of that year off, floating around Lake
Mead and trying not to think about golf. Jerry hadn't lost his
enthusiasm for serious recreational boating, and in the summer of
'95 he was breaking in a new toy, a 25-foot Eliminator that could
slice through the water at 125 mph. The boat was so cutting edge
that it landed on the cover of the January '96 Hot Boat magazine.
There were Bob and Brenda, smiling at the camera. "It was like
getting caught cutting school," she says.
After much reflection Bob set out for the European tour in 1996.
In his freshman year he finished a demoralizing 133rd on the
money list. In 1997 Bob was off to a good start in Europe, but
Brenda, enduring a difficult pregnancy, had to spend most of the
season in Las Vegas. They went as long as five weeks without
seeing each other. "We tried to keep the phone bills less than
the house payment," says Brenda. "It didn't always happen."
Not until 1999 did May's comfort level catch up with his talent
and work ethic. He got off to such a strong start on the European
tour that Colin Montgomerie began calling him Top 10 Bob. May's
seasonlong excellence was reflected in his stroke average (70.49,
fifth best on tour) and standing on the money list (11th, with
$618,197). The year was punctuated by a rousing victory over
Montgomerie at the British Masters, in Woburn, England. The
victory was the first of his pro career after an astonishing 22
second-place finishes. In the transatlantic phone call that
followed, Bob and Brenda wept for what seemed like an eternity,
long-distance charges be damned.
Emboldened by his play in Europe, May breezed through the PGA
Tour's Q school last fall, and even before the PGA Championship
he was having a sneaky good year, with strong showings at the
U.S. and British Opens, in which he came in 23rd and 11th,
respectively. At the Fedex St. Jude Classic in June, May played
in the final group with Notah Begay and after a hot start was two
strokes ahead with 10 holes to play. May failed to make another
birdie and in the end was passed by a hard-charging Begay. "I
learned a lesson there," May says. "In that situation you have to
keep going. You can't be afraid to keep making birdies."
This mantra obviously served him well when he went toe-to-toe
with Woods. Not including the highlights in the city council
chamber, May has watched the tape of that momentous final day
only once, and upon further review he was as thunderstruck as the
rest of us. "I was so focused on my game, I didn't appreciate
what was happening at the time," he says.
The only time May let his mind wander during the duel was when
Woods was lining up his devilish six-footer on the final hole to
force the playoff. What earth-shattering thoughts were going
through May's mind? "If he misses this putt, you're the PGA
champ," May says. Not exactly the sound bite of the year but very
Bob May. "I knew he would make it," May adds. "That's what makes
Tiger, Tiger. Hats off to him. I played my best. No regrets."
It didn't take long for May to begin being treated like a matinee
idol. At 6 a.m. on the day after the PGA he was signing
autographs at Louisville International Airport. One of the first
things Brenda told him upon his return home that afternoon was,
"Bob, we have to change the phone number."
"You're overreacting," he said. The next morning he was awakened
by a predawn phone call, the mysterious voice on the other end of
the line saying, "You don't know me, but I got your number off
the Internet...." The Mays had a new phone number that afternoon.
Before the blackout, one of the more presumptuous calls came from
a real estate agent, who told Brenda, "I saw how much money Bob
made, so now are you ready to buy a new home?" To be sure, Bob is
tempted. He salivates over a buddy's eight-car garage, and no
wonder. "His biggest dream in life is to have one of those
monster trucks that is 10 feet off the ground," Brenda says. "I
think that's known as a little man's complex."
The Mays, however, aren't going anywhere. THEY HAVE CARVED OUT
TOO NICE A LIFE IN THE SUBDIVISION OF THE PGA RUNNER-UP CHAMPION,
which was the wording of a charmingly clunky homemade sign hung
by a couple of kids at the entrance to the neighborhood.
Summerlin is 15 minutes of freeway and a world away from the
bright lights and the dice and the vice of the Strip. (The Mays
have been "downtown," as they call it, only once this year.)
Their quiet cul-de-sac is home to 22 kids, including Trenton and
Bob owns fancy leathers, but he prefers to ride his three
motorcycles in blue jeans, albeit a pair that is padded and lined
with Kevlar. There is no better cruising than on the lonely roads
outside Vegas, with their stunning desert scenery. He loves the
freedom, the release of zooming around at high speeds, and he has
the machinery to do it right. May owns a Ducati SPS V-twin, the
Ferrari of motorcycles, and a Kawasaki Ninja with a custom
rainbow paint job, complete with a matching helmet featuring the
Tasmanian Devil brandishing a golf club. He is particularly fond
of his electric blue Yamaha R1, the fastest bike on the road, 440
pounds propelled by a 160-horsepower engine. How far has May
pushed the envelope? "Not very," he says nonchalantly. "Maybe 140
miles an hour. Dad's done 170 on the R1."
"Bob likes to go fast, but he's cautious," says Jerry.
That's the innate contradiction of May--he's always in a hurry,
yet it has taken him so long to arrive. "Some get there sooner
than others," May says, talking golf, not bikes. "The important
thing is that you make it in the end."
When May watched a tape of the PGA, he was thunderstruck.
"I didn't appreciate what was happening at the time," he says.
Among the many eye-openers for May on the Asian tour
was stumbling upon villagers bathing in the water hazards.