Waiting Game

Five years ago Bob May was part of one of the most exciting PGA Championships ever. Today he's just getting to the point where he can play 18 holes without feeling it for days
August 14, 2005

There's Bob May in the desert sun, not doing much, simply hitting balls at the far end of the range at the TPC at Summerlin, feeling the heat on his back, happy to be swinging a club again. Here's Bill Lunde, a Nationwide tour player, stopping to say hello, and naturally he asks the question that everyone asks: "How's the back?" And May says what he's been saying for months: "It's getting there. Getting better." ¶ Here's Bob May on your television set, taking Tiger Woods to a three-hole playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship, draining clutch putts, stiffing irons and always, every single time, finishing a heroic second. ¶ Here's Bob May at his physical therapist's office, lying on an examining table while a man in a white lab coat twists one leg this way, the other leg that way, measuring the golfer's flexibility with a large protractor. The therapist then has May sit up, and he taps May's knees with a rubber hammer and runs a tool that looks like a tiny pizza cutter over his feet as he dictates his conclusions to an assistant writing on a clipboard. May, with his eyes closed, stands on one leg, then the other. All the while, the therapist asks questions.

"How are you hitting them?"

"Good."

"Sleep?"

"Sleep has not been good. Restless. Poor to fair. I have a hard time getting comfortable."

"After all you've been through, what's your Number 1 complaint?"

"Tightness and soreness in the hip and groin area. It moves around. If I don't play golf, I'm usually not irritated. If I play golf or practice, that night I'm going to be sore."

Here's Bob May in his car, driving to meet his wife, Brenda, and his seven-year-old son, Trenton, at a barbecue joint near their home in the northwest suburbs of Las Vegas. "People think I came out of nowhere," he says, alluding to his famous tussle with Tiger at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. "I don't see it that way. I was ranked in the top 50. I'd been successful on the European tour. Golf fanatics knew about me--I was the American they followed on the Golf Channel every morning before they went to work." Heading into that PGA, he points out, he had played well--second at Memphis, 21st at the U.S. Open, and he was only a year downstream from his victory at the 1999 British Masters. Without a doubt May could play.

Here's Bob May at the door to the restaurant, describing the soreness he feels after a practice session: "There's a knot in my back, like I have a cellphone tucked inside my belt."

That is nothing compared with the pain he felt last April when he woke up in the surgical recovery room at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. "The nurse recommended morphine," he recalls, "and I said no. But at 12 that night I was screaming for something." (They gave him Vicodin and a muscle relaxer.) Now he has only stiffness and soreness, but May can't help worrying that his passion--golf--will become his punishment. "I've had doctors tell me the golf swing is brutal," he says. "It's a violent, twisting motion, and the spine's not made for that."

Not his spine, anyway. When May walked off the 18th tee on the final day of the 2003 EDS Byron Nelson Championship, he was seven under for the day, playing great, but something had grabbed in his lower back on the tee shot, and he wondered if he had hurt himself. He hit a little nine-iron into the green, and whoa, there was another stab of pain. But he chipped his third onto the green and got down for par and a final-round 64. He had no idea that his life was about to change. He didn't know that he had two bulging disks and a spinal-nerve canal too narrow to accommodate those bulges. "It hurt only when I played golf," he says now, recalling the months of rest and physical therapy that failed to fix his back (not to mention the nerve pain that shot down his right side on every swing). "It hurt only with that rotational movement."

That rotational movement means everything to May. He has been preoccupied with it since he was an 11-year-old taking Sunday morning lessons from Eddie Merrins at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. ("Bobby loved to compete, and he loved to work," says Merrins. "If he didn't play well, he wouldn't run off to the beach. He'd go straight to the driving range and beat those golf balls into submission.") He used that motion to qualify for the Los Angeles Open when he was 16; to win All-America honors three times at Oklahoma State; to lead the 1991 Cowboys to the NCAA championship; to play for the victorious U.S. team at the '91 Walker Cup. "Golf is all he knows," says Brenda. "That's what he wants to do; that's what he's always done."

When May finally opted for surgery, the surgeon said to Brenda afterward, "You know how I told you Bob would need four weeks of absolutely no activity? Make that 10." That meant Brenda had to look after two busy children and a broken-down athlete who never left the bedroom. "Bob was helpless," she recalls. "They showed me how to use a sheet to roll him over." Things got better after the 10 weeks, but Bob slept on a twin bed because he couldn't lift himself onto the marital mattress. Like his dad, Jerry, who owned a gas station in La Habra, Calif., Bob loves fast cars and fast boats. He used to have a double-outboard, catamaran-style race boat with F-16 canopies and a carbon-fiber hull, and he'd race it on Lake Mead and Lake Havasu, throwing up great rooster tails of water. But now he couldn't even drive the family car. All he could do was lie in bed and watch TV.

"I watched CNN in the middle of the night," Bob says, looking back on those dismal weeks. "I could tell you everything that happened in the news." He watched the Golf Channel too--including the often-replayed highlight video that showed him shooting an incoming 31 on the final day at Valhalla to tie Woods with a PGA Championship scoring record of 18-under-par 270--and the Speed Channel, "because I'm a NASCAR junkie." Then May got hooked on infomercials. He could tell you what QVC charges for a cubic-zirconia tie tack and how much shellac Esteban puts on his guitar necks, and if a friend mentioned the name of some obscure self-tanning lotion, May would say, "Yeah, I saw that on TV." In a weak moment he ordered 10 little cameras at 45 bucks each "to give to friends."

Merrins, still on the job at Bel-Air at age 79, worries that May, at age 36, might never play tournament golf again. "That would be a tragedy," says the old pro. "He was just beginning to fulfill his promise." Merrins still remembers every detail of the 1991 British Amateur at Ganton Golf Club, where May beat two-time U.S. Amateur champion Jay Sigel 7 and 6 and Walker Cup star David Duval 4 and 3, only to fall 8 and 6 in the final to England's Gary Wolstenholme, "a little guy Bobby could outhit by 50 yards." Merrins also remembers May's hitting his second shot into the water on the par-5 17th at Cherry Hills in the quarterfinals of the 1990 U.S. Amateur, handing the match to eventual champion Phil Mickelson. "He won enough events," Merrins says of his pupil, "but he didn't win the big ones."

May didn't win the big one at Valhalla, either, but who could beat Tiger Woods in 2000? Woods had already won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight before May got in his way in the final round. "It was five hours of drama," says Merrins. "It was David and Goliath. They were like two stage performers playing off one another. Even people who didn't know about golf got caught up in it."

But that was then. Now it's the summer of 2005, and while Woods is back--he has won two majors going into the PGA, same as in 2000--May is just getting to the point where he can play 18 holes without feeling it for days. What's worse, when May walks up to the ball, he doesn't know what he wants to do with the shot. "It used to be automatic," he says. "If I wanted to hit it low, I'd put the ball back in my stance and put my hands slightly ahead and simply do it. Now I have to think about all those things." It's nothing that a little practice wouldn't fix, but that is no longer an option for May. "It's hard to make a comeback when you can't practice for long hours, and I can't do that. I can't beat balls for three or four hours a day."

So here's Bob May on the range, hitting his hundred balls, watching the flight of each shot for clues, tweaking his swing. "I've made a few adjustments," he says, "opened my stance a little so I don't turn as hard against my right side. I'm not as ballistic coming through." (Here's little Bobby, age 15, playing Bel-Air's 163-yard 3rd hole with Merrins and a burly kid named Duffy Waldorf, who is 21. Duffy hits a seven-iron to the green. Bobby, not to be outdone, pulls a nine-iron, shuts down the face to give it the loft of a six-iron, and knocks his own ball onto the green. Says Merrins, "Bobby was bound and determined to show a guy who outweighed him by 100 pounds that he could hit it as far as him.")

Here's Bob May's situation. He can play in 15 PGA Tour events under the Tour's major-medical extension rule, and if he earns $353,187 he gets to keep his Tour card. He can also play in as many Nationwide tour events as he wants, or he can try to earn his spot in December at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament--if he's up to two practice rounds and six tournament rounds on consecutive days. May plans to enter a Nationwide tournament in September "to see where I'm at."

In the meantime you'll find him inside the gates of the Palisades, a subdivision in the Vegas suburb of Summerlin. Here's Bob May's house--a spacious but unpretentious domicile with shoes, sandals and sneakers strewn about the foyer, a four-year-old named Madelyn prancing from room to room and a giant brown bearskin draped over an ottoman. ("I'm a hunter," May says. "I shot it in Alaska.") The Mays moved here shortly after Bob's Valhalla adventure, driven out of their old neighborhood by well-intentioned fans who parked in front of the house or called their listed number at all hours. "It was nice to have the support," May says, "but when the news truck pulled up to the house, I said, 'Wait a minute, all I did was play good in a golf tournament.'"

Brenda still vividly recalls the summer afternoon in 2000 when friends and neighbors poured into their old house to watch Bob and Tiger duel on TV. "Poor Trenton, he was three. He wanted to watch a cartoon, and he didn't understand why nobody would put it on for him." Bob, sitting on a kitchen stool, says, "I can tell you every shot I hit that day. My plan was, don't pay attention to what Tiger's doing, don't get caught up in it." He smiles at the memory. "Some think it was the best golf that Tiger will ever play. I don't know about that. He's a young man still."

As is May, chronologically, but he has an old man's worries. The Tour's insurance company has turned down his claim twice, contending that his surgery was for a preexisting condition. His trainer tells him that therapy has gotten him back to 90%, but there's no guarantee he'll ever reach 100. And that soreness in his hip still hasn't gone away. Says May, "It's been a harsh struggle."

So here's Bob May at the crossroads, wondering if his body will let him reclaim his game. He says, "I've gotten to spend a lot of time with my family. I've been able to watch my kids grow up. But I won't be happy unless I can play competitive golf. I've never gotten burned out on the game. I love it."

Finally, here's Bob May's message to the Golf Channel: "Keep on playing that Valhalla tape, but I'll be back soon to give people something else to watch."

Merrins worries that May, at age 36, might never play tournament golf again. "THAT WOULD BE A TRAGEDY," Merrins says. "He was just beginning to fulfill his promise."

COLOR PHOTOJOHN BIEVER FOREVER LINKED May and Woods set the PGA scoring record at Valhalla, before Tiger won in a playoff. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Beck SILVER LINING May has spent lots of time at home with (from left) Madelyn, Brenda and Trenton. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Beck DAILY GRIND Immobile for 10 weeks after surgery, May works tirelessly with a therapist and hopes to play competitively next month. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Beck SO CLOSE May shot a 31 on the final nine of the 2000 PGA, yet lost when his 40-foot putt on the third playoff hole barely missed. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Beck PEAK FORM The 2000 PGA was Woods's third straight major win, and the following April he completed the Tiger Slam at Augusta.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)