VALHALLA MOMENTS

Paul Azinger and Bob May (right) each have experienced memorable moments in past PGA Championships at Valhalla Golf Club.

PGA Championship: Legendary moments at Valhalla

As long as golf is played at Valhalla Golf Club, it will forever be linked to events listed near the top of the career résumés of two individuals — Bob May and Paul Azinger. May was largely an undistinguished journeyman when the 2000 PGA Championship came to Valhalla; he’d never won on the PGA Tour and had competed in only three majors. He shot 31 over the incoming nine of the final round, then virtually matched Tiger Woods, shot for shot, in the PGA Championship’s first three-hole, aggregate-score playoff that was filled with one memorable shot after another.

May came up one stroke shy of Woods in his attempt at a career-defining accomplishment.

Azinger, the 1993 PGA Champion, was called upon to restore U.S. fortunes in the Ryder Cup. As Captain of the 2008 U.S. Team at Valhalla, he was charged with reversing an unprecedented string of success by European squads that had won three times in a row, set a record for their largest margin of victory and then matched it two years later.

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BOB MAY 

BY JAMES RAIA

Not long ago, someone walked up to Bob May in, of all places, the Bob May Golf Academy in Las Vegas, and asked if he knew where Bob May was. May’s response, as it has been many times, was “I’m him.”

The golfer with zero PGA Tour wins and about two dozen runner-up finishes worldwide is now age 45 and has hasn’t enjoyed the spotlight in years. Time sometimes help to fade familiarity, too.

It’s been 14 years since May and Tiger Woods exchanged golf shots extraordinaire at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. It was the first year the championship had switched from a sudden death playoff to a three-hole aggregate-score playoff system.

May is not always remembered as a player, but his performance in that PGA Championship rarely is forgotten. Woods was in the midst of what would become his “Tiger Slam.” He was supposed to win. May, who had had three straight 66s to complete regulation play and was one stroke better than Woods in the final round, was supposed to lose. Both players were at the top of their respective games, each playing Sunday’s final nine in 31.

But May was stunned and, he recalls, Woods was, too. A three-hole playoff system? Who knew?

“When we signed our scorecards and we knew we were going into a playoff, well, I’ve never really asked Tiger about it, but I figured we were going back to the 18th,” May recalls. “So for them to go, ‘We’re going to start at the 16th,’ well, it was fine. It’s still golf. We all have to play the same hole. But it kind of threw me off a bit. Other than that, it was an exciting three holes. I think we were both pretty tired.”

The pressure was going to be on Woods.

The playoff is among golf’s most memorable. Woods birdied the par-4 16th from 20 feet; May made par. Both parred 17 and 18.

Woods won with a score of 12 to May’s 13. Had May won and if he were healthy, he says his playing career, but not his life, would have been different. May resides with his wife and two children in Las Vegas. He’s played on different tours while enduring the aftermath of severe back injuries.

He had surgery in 2004, was bedridden for 10 weeks and didn’t swing a club for more than two years.

“I remember the doctor asked if there was one thing I wanted him to do,” May recalls. “I just said, ‘Get rid of the pain.’

“He told me, ‘If you don’t play golf, your back will be fine for the rest of your life. If you are going to play golf, you really need to stay focused on your workouts, stick with it and be very disciplined.’ I was for a while, and then you tend to get lazy. My kids got older. I wanted to spend more time with them. I was like, ‘Oh, I will miss today’s workout.’ Well, that leads to the next day and the next day and then all of a sudden you haven’t worked out for three weeks.”

May’s practice improvement is encouraging and he hopes to play again on the “young tour” and then the Champions Tour.

“The only thing that would have changed is the financial aspect,” May says of his oh-so-close week at Valhalla. “Other than that, I think I got just as much recognition for finishing second the way it happened than if I would have won it. There are the exemptions, of course. But from the notoriety standpoint, I don’t think there would have been any changes at all.”

A few days after the Valhalla playoff, May was in an expensive restaurant in Reno, where he was playing that week’s Tour event, with friends and equipment representatives. When May went to take care of the bill, it had been already been paid.

Remembers May: “Some guy on the back of his golf handicap card had written, ‘Thank you for the show. We really appreciated it. Good luck this week.’

“He didn’t tell us who he was or anything,” May continued. “I went to the head pro at Montrose, where we were going to play. I asked him if he knew this guy and if he knew if he might have been at the restaurant. It turned out he was. I left golf balls for the guy at the pro shop and a thank you note. He was the first one to do something like that for me.”

May has been part of several similar stories. Sometimes the gesture is anonymous; sometimes fans will leave a note, but the impetus is always the same — thanks for the memory.

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Legendary Valhalla Moments -- PAUL AZINGER

BY JOHN HAWKINS

The man had a plan. Not that the 26 men who held the job before him didn’t, but Paul Azinger’s mission as the 2008 U.S.

Ryder Cup Captain was more complex than perhaps any of his predecessors. He had to stop the bleeding. He had to do it on American soil, where the pressure to win would be much greater. And he had to do it without his best player.

“I look back on Valhalla as my mountaintop experience in golf,” Azinger says. “I felt like I’d put my finger on the reasons Europe was beating us every time, and as Captain, all you can do is create an environment that gives them the best chance to be successful. For the most part, there’s a razor-thin line between winning and losing.”

The only thing close about the 37th Ryder Cup was the unity displayed by the U.S. squad, which rolled to a 161/2-111/2 triumph and at least partially avenged back-to-back beatings from the Euros in 2004 and ’06. It was the largest margin of victory for the Americans since 1981.

For the first time in three decades, the Yanks led after all five sessions.

Every U.S. player scored at least a half point, so there were heroes aplenty, but for all the blame dumped on losing skippers in recent years, Azinger deserved — and received — a ton of credit for bonding a roster with six Ryder Cup rookies and negating the absence of Tiger Woods, who had undergone knee surgery three months earlier.

“The fun one was Valhalla,” says Jim Furyk, who was making his sixth appearance on a U.S. team but winning for just the second time. “Experience, experience, experience — I’ve played in a lot of Ryder Cups and that’s all you hear about, but the new guys and young guys on that team infused an amazing amount of energy into that team.”

Azinger’s first-timers combined for a 9-4-8 record, an astonishing level of productivity at an event where pressure can become an insurmountable force. “I took [sports psychologist]

Bob Rotella’s philosophy straight to them,” Azinger says. “Play to play great. Play to show off for the crowd. We never talked about winning or losing, or playing for the American flag. Our message was one of preparation and confidence. You’re the best players in the world. Go show them how good you are.”

Strategically and philosophically, Azinger’s decision to divide his squad into three four-man teams proved crucial to the team’s success. Two of the “pods” consisted of players with similar personalities. The third included three southerners (Kenny Perry, J.B. Holmes, Boo Weekley) and Furyk, whose role as a stabilizing force was designed in part to mitigate his own Ryder Cup shortcomings.

“All three of those guys tend to be hard on themselves,” Azinger says. “Furyk embraced the job of encourager. It was the first time he’d come to a Ryder Cup not so much worried about his own play, but the play of others.”

A pod of aggressive golfers included Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan and Justin Leonard. The other group featured low-blood-pressure types: Steve Stricker, Stewart Cink, Chad Campbell and Ben Curtis.

Comfort level and familiarity. No surprises. Lots of captainsstrive for such an environment, but when things go wrong and teams begin falling behind, decisions are made on the fly and they haven’t always been good ones.

Azinger basically took the guesswork out of the equation, and in doing so, he maximized the abilities of a group that certainly wasn’t the most talented U.S. squad ever, but one that was eager to perform.

“My strength was, I had a personality that would get them to buy into it,” Azinger says. “Europe has [personnel groupings] naturally with their different nationalities, but we had to devise it. I gave our guys ownership in their pods, which led to them becoming invested in each other. I surrounded myself with good people, then stayed the hell out of the way.”

James Raia is a freelance writer based in Sacramento,Calif. John Hawkins has covered professional golf as an award-winning writer and television analyst since 1992.