At the Hyatt in downtown Rochester, N.Y., last week, a man from
Ethiopia named Negede Israel delivered room service to Shaun
Micheel. He brought Micheel a steak on Tuesday night and again on
Wednesday and again on Thursday. On that first night Israel
figured out that Micheel was in town to play in the PGA
Championship. The second night he decided he liked him. The third
night he blessed the golfer with good fortune. ¬∂ "You are a very
nice man," the room-service man said. "I am making a prayer that
you have good luck." ¬∂ "Thank you," the golfer said. ¬∂ So Shaun
Micheel had Negede Israel's prayers going for him ... which is
nice. But these days you don't need a prayer to make your first
tournament win a major. All you need is skill and a chance. And
as Tiger Woods and everybody else torturing themselves at the
rough-clogged Oak Hill Country Club said last week, there's more
depth in tournament golf than ever before. Last month the veil
was lifted off Ben Curtis when he won the British Open, the first
major he had ever played in. Last week's off-the-bench winner was
Micheel (pronounced Ma-KEEL), who is now 1 for 3 in majors
played. Negede Israel, new to golf, wasn't surprised by Micheel's
win, and you shouldn't be either. Rod Pampling could win the next
major, in Augusta in April, but you never know, it could be Toshi
Izawa. Or Woods, if he gets his head and swing straight.
It's a strange new day in golf. For the first time since 1969 the
four major championships were won by men who had never before won
a major. The days of Tiger's winning majors by ungodly margins
(he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots just three
years ago) are over. Why? Because with the newest, hottest balls
and titanium drivers, everybody can drive the ball 300 yards and
straight. A lot of people can hit the ball high and stop it. And
sooner or later everybody has four days of good putting, as
Micheel, an ordinary putter 51 weeks a year, did last week at Oak
Hill, where--did you hear about this?--the rough was vicious.
Ever since Woods won his first major, the '97 Masters, by 12
shots, the American golf authorities, those he-men at Augusta
National, the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America, have
been trying to figure out ways to make courses Tiger-proof. This
year their plans all came together: Make every major sheer
drudgery, like the U.S. Open. There have been hundreds of trees
planted at Augusta National over the past six years, and this
year there was actual rough. The days of freewheeling on that
course are over. The U.S. Open is played at courses that are
largely interchangeable, except for Pebble Beach and Shinnecock
Hills (where it will be held next year), courses that aren't
suffocating. Last week the PGA was played on a classic old U.S.
Open course, but it was a U.S. Open course on steroids. The rough
was--you likely know this by now--excessive: too much water, too
much fertilizer, too much seed, too much science. If you drove
into the Oak Hill rough, you chopped your ball out and made bogey
(unless you were Micheel on Sunday, with Negede Israel on your
side). If you hit into the snarling half-foot rough around any of
the greens, you took out your sand wedge, plopped the ball on and
made bogey. Oak Hill was an equal-opportunity golf course last
week. Artistry took a beating.
"If you miss a fairway, it doesn't matter whether you're Tiger
Woods or Shaun Micheel or Chad Campbell, you're probably going to
have a poor lie, and you're probably going to be pitching out,"
said Micheel, who shot rounds of 69, 68, 69 and a final-round
August 24, 2003
So now golf is back to what it was in the old days, before Tiger
took over and made it look easy, too easy in the view of some
people who had suffered in the game all their lives. Now one
major is again more than enough to distinguish a career. The PGA
Championship has a host of winners who never won the Masters or
the U.S. Open or the British Open. Bob Tway and Jeff Sluman and
Wayne Grady and Mark Brooks come to mind. Shaun Micheel is a
34-year-old journeyman who is not a good bet to win another
major. Doesn't matter. Last week he made his career complete ...
and made $1 million, too.
On Sunday he was paired with Campbell in the final group. When
they assembled on the 1st tee, both at four under par, you needed
a program to tell them apart. Both have round, unexceptional
faces, small ears and noses, narrow eyes, knobby chins and short
hair underneath their black CLEVELAND GOLF caps. They are both
sons of the upper-middle class who grew up playing golf at
country clubs. Campbell's father is an oil-field supervisor, and
Micheel's a retired Federal Express pilot. FedEx is based in
Memphis, which is why Micheel grew up there. He still lives
there, with his wife, Stephanie, a lawyer, because that's the way
he is, a homeboy.
Autograph seekers sometimes think Micheel is Campbell. As for
Campbell, he was identified on the front page of the Sunday
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle as being from New Zealand. No,
that's Michael Campbell. Programs--and photo IDs--for everybody!
But by the time they reached the 18th tee, with Micheel leading
the tournament at three under and Campbell a shot back, it was
evident that Campbell and Micheel were not separated at birth.
Campbell, who is 29, has had a career of steady progression. He
won as an amateur, on the Hooters tour, on the Nike tour. He
earned $825,000 last year as a PGA Tour rookie. In an SI player
poll conducted in late April, his touring brethren identified him
as a leading candidate to win a major. He will when he putts
better than he did on Sunday.
Micheel knows how wearing professional golf can be. You could see
it in the exaggerated exhalations he made before his tee shots on
Sunday. You could see it when his already narrow eyes went
envelope-thin as he clobbered a second-shot pitching wedge out of
the rough and onto the green at the par-4 16th, where his birdie
from 30 feet gave him a two-shot lead over Campbell. The only
reason he could play the shot from the rough was because--lucky
day--the grass was growing with him.
It was a long trip to that rough. For years Micheel was just
another itinerant professional golfer, playing anywhere there was
a purse--Singapore; New Bern, N.C; wherever. He first played the
PGA Tour in '94 and made four cuts in 19 events. He made it back
to the Tour in '97, when he made five cuts in 21 events. He
didn't return to the Tour until 2000, when he finished 104th on
the money list, then 136th the next year, then 105th last year.
But all that time he was a journeyman with an asterisk, for
something he did in New Bern in 1993 while playing in a
third-tier professional event called the Croatan National
Classic. He was sitting in a hotel parking lot when he saw a car
plow down Pollock Street in downtown New Bern, veer off the road
and go through a fence and into the Neuse River, in water nearly
six feet deep. Micheel stripped to his boxer shorts on a river
wall and swam, without hesitation, to the car. He and three
others pulled out the elderly couple inside. "New Bern's an
exciting town," Micheel told the local paper later that day. "You
don't see stuff like this in Memphis."
Ten summers later, in the great golf town of Rochester, he
created excitement all on his own. On the final hole, holding on
to a one-shot lead, Micheel watched Campbell smash a long drive
down the middle on the par-4. Micheel's drive was not as good,
and only a favorable bounce kept it from going in the left rough.
But--lucky day--his ball came to rest with a perfect lie, and at
a perfect distance, 175 yards, for a full seven-iron.
Grass, with the help of science, does not get greener than it was
at Oak Hill late Sunday afternoon. Skies do not get bluer. And
shots do not get much purer than Micheel's final shot to the home
green. His caddie yelled, "Be right!" as Micheel stared his ball
down. He couldn't see its final resting place--two inches short
of the hole. The shot's already on golf's alltime highlight reel.
Campbell made a par. Micheel tapped in for his birdie and came
off the green as the PGA champion. Waiting for him was his
pregnant wife, who had never seen her husband finish better than
a tie for third in an official Tour event. Micheel kissed her
stomach--and his son-to-be--then went off to sign his scorecard
in the scorer's tent.
He reemerged a couple of minutes later to a cheering crowd, a
golfing hero now. He didn't look different, not one little bit.
He's done more important things in his life, and he knows it.
By toughening courses, the golf he-men have found a way to MAKE
EVERY MAJOR SHEER DRUDGERY, like the U.S. Open.