Monday, August 18, 2003

Micheel: Another major surprise

Spectacular 7-iron shot seals win

By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist

ROCHESTER, N.Y. - He didn't make it easy on himself. Maybe because Shaun Micheel doesn't know any other way.

On his way to play a tournament on a minor-league circuit a decade ago, he stripped to his boxers and waded into a river to rescue an elderly couple from a car that had plunged in. But it wasn't until a few years later that Micheel could muster enough courage to play his best in front of a crowd.

On Sunday, front and center on the biggest stage the game offers, the 34-year-old journeyman traded blows with up-and-coming Chad Campbell down the stretch of the PGA Championship, and won. But it wasn't until Micheel struck a 7-iron from 175 yards, made the long walk to the green and found it sitting within 2 inches of the flag that he dared lift his right hand to his heart and tap-tap-tap it, before exhaling deeply.

"I know it sounds pretty simple, but I was just trying to make the cut," he said, "and I would have been happy with that."

Yet few winners could have been more deserving to close out the wackiest major championship season since 1969, when all four Grand Slam events also were claimed by first-timers.

But that's not just because the history of the PGA is already speckled with guys not only winning their first Grand Slam tournament - now 13 of the last 16 - but winning in their first appearance. It's now seven in all, with Micheel becoming the first since John Daly in 1991.

He was also a near-perfect fit because of two other things.

First, the PGA Championship came into being in 1916 as part of a scheme to lift the profile of struggling golf pros, and few have struggled more than Micheel, who was 0-for-163 on the tour when he teed off at Oak Hill Country Club on Thursday.

And second, because for the first five decades of its existence, this tournament was strictly a match-play event, and when it mattered, Micheel turned out to be every bit as good at it as Walter Hagen, the patron saint of the PGA.

"We're good friends, we had a great time out there. But really, the back nine, we didn't talk that much," Campbell said. "We were kind of focusing on what we were doing."

With good reason.

The back-and-forth began on the first tee, when the two went off in the final pairing tied at 4 under, and Micheel broke the deadlock by making birdie to Campbell's bogey.

But it began in earnest on the back. Micheel built a three-stroke lead for the first time at the sixth hole and again at the 14th, when another birdie-bogey tilt restored the cushion.

"When I birdied 14, I felt like I was pretty much in control of my game," he said.

But it didn't last long.

The fortunate thing is that Micheel had plenty of practice scuffling. He was a first-team All-America at Indiana in 1991, one of those promising kids who get in line to become the next big star on the PGA Tour. What followed instead was a detour through several minor-league circuits stateside and South Africa.

It was on his way to one of those events that Micheel walked out of his hotel room one morning in 1993 and watched in horror as a car flew over an embankment and splashed into a river nearby. He never was a strong swimmer, but Micheel's instincts didn't care. He leaped into the water and helped save two lives without regard for the danger it posed to his own.

On Saturday, when he bogeyed the final three holes to fall into a tie for the lead, he said, "I wish that had some bearing on how I played golf, because if it did, then I would probably play well every week. ... But the pressure that I feel, pulling someone out of the water is totally different."

Micheel woke up Sunday morning "a little more stir crazy than yesterday," but even that was a considerable improvement over just a few years ago. Last year, he was leading the B.C. Open just down the road and coughed up a three-stroke lead on the final day.

"I think the fear of the unknown frightens all of us and I certainly had that today," Micheel said.

Standing over his approach shot into the 18th, Micheel was a 34-year-old with a very uncertain future. He and wife Stephanie have a child on the way and as recently as a month ago, Micheel was wondering whether he would be able to hang onto his tour card.

As he drew back the club, the furthest thing from his mind was the $1.08 million winner's purse and all the security - a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a guaranteed slot in all the majors for at least five years.

"I had a line picked out, a direction where I wanted the ball to go and I where I wanted it to end up," Micheel said. "It was not next to the hole, I can assure you."

Of course not.

That would have seemed too easy.

Major first quartets

Shaun Micheel's PGA Championship victory Sunday meant all four winners of this year's Grand Slam series were first-time major championship winners. The others:

• Mike Weir (Masters)

• Jim Furyk (U.S. Open)

• Ben Curtis (British Open)

The above quartet matches the achievement 34 years ago of first-time major winners:

• George Archer (Masters)

• Orville Moody (U.S. Open)

• Tony Jacklin (British Open)

• Raymond Floyd (PGA)


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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