Bob May, Valhalla protagonist circa 2000, hasn’t played golf in a year – not on the PGA Tour, not at home, nowhere but in his head. He shot 6 under par in his last round, but it was one of the most dissatisfying 64s in golf history. He hurt his back on that last tee shot the final day of the 2003 EDS Byron Nelson Championship and hasn’t been seen since, save for several doctors’ offices.
Having exhausted the physical therapy route, he had lower back surgery – the last resort – May 11 to clean the spinal nerve canal and two herniated discs, one on each side. When renowned specialist Dr. Rick Delamarter opened May’s back at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, he labeled it “trashed,” worse than any MRI or X-ray had indicated.
“I was scared,” May said. “All they had to do was hit the wrong nerve and I’d be chair-bound.”
Now, while May waits and wonders, he needs wife Brenda’s help to get in and out of a bed, chair or car. He can’t drive for four weeks. He can’t do anything but rest and walk around for 10 weeks, until rehabilitation begins. He can’t swing a golf club for 20 weeks. And he can’t wait to get off the pain-killers and muscle relaxers that make him feel groggy.
“Culture shock,” he calls his new existence.
At 35, when many players peak, Bob May worries that his competitive golf career might be finished.
“I fret about whether I’ll ever play again,” May, his left foot throbbing, said a week after the operation while being driven from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for a scheduled checkup. “I still have that question. I won’t know for 20 weeks when I swing a golf club again. I don’t know if I’ll be pain free.”
May’s saga underscores that there are no guarantees in golf, not from one swing to the next. Games can go south and backs can go out in a blink. If there’s one thing golfers fear as much as losing their skill, it’s the occupational hazard of lower back pain. May’s problem in the last year is that he hasn’t been able to swing a club without pain shooting through his back or down a leg.
“I tried, but it didn’t work,” he said. “I had no rotational ability without pain.”
Not only did he have bulgings in the L-4, L-5 and S-1 areas, his spinal nerve canal was dysfunctionally small. The upshot was the pinching of nerves.
This, of course, is not where May imagined he would be after bursting onto the major championship scene at the 2000 PGA Championship. His brilliant counterpunching with Tiger Woods in a David-Goliath act gave us golf’s most riveting high-performance duel since Tom Watson held off Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977.
May kept producing the improbable until he came up a couple of inches short on the third playoff hole, enabling Woods to secure the third leg of his 2000-01 Tiger Slam of four consecutive major victories.
Woods slipped on his famous game face and responded while on the verge of checkmate at least twice in the fourth round, at Valhalla’s 15th and 18th holes. Each player shot 31 on the final nine, with journeyman May making birdie from 15 feet on 18 before Woods answered from 7 feet to force the playoff. May closed with three consecutive 66s for a share of the PGA scoring mark, but it wasn’t enough at the height of Tigermania.
“Just the other day someone called me and said, ‘Turn on The Golf Channel, they’re showing the highlights from that PGA,’ ” May said. “People always bring it up, and I have no problem talking about it because it was one of the best moments of my career.”
May hasn’t come close to a trophy since. He did win on the PGA European Tour in 1999, but the best he has done in 127 PGA Tour starts are two seconds and one other top 10.
Now he’s not sure he’ll get another chance. He lost 20 pounds and two pants sizes while working out with a trainer and getting in good shape during the last 12 futile months. But that fitter body still felt pain when he swung a club. So now he’s praying the surgery works.
“(Dr. Delamarter) said if I do everything he tells me, I’ll be able to play golf again,” said May, who sought the counsel of back specialists in San Diego, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas before deciding to let Delamarter operate. “But he said if I try to come back too soon, I could be a candidate for an artificial disc. I’m hoping to play again within a year, but I don’t want to push anything and get set back further.”
Patience won’t come easily. He already has learned that while being home with his wife and two young children.
“It was good being home, but I want to be out there,” he said. “Golf is not only my job, it’s what I love the most. I’ve gotten down quite a bit. It’s hard.”
What’s worse, May has been denied disability compensation because his insurance company said his injury was “pre-existing.” Apparently that refers to the two months he missed in early 2001 because of back problems. May says he’ll probably sue.
“That’s so frustrating,” he said. “I’m sure some people are involved in insurance fraud, but I hurt my back playing golf and can’t play. I have a legitimate claim and they’re denying me. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
May has “enough funds to survive for a little while.” He has earned $2.76 million on Tour and plenty more elsewhere while finishing second 22 times around the world.
There was no second anything like Valhalla. He and Woods will be forever linked. But while Woods has continued to be No. 1, May has faded behind the scenes, his fate in the hands of medical science. Only time will determine whether he will return to shoot low scores.
And to settle a score.
“The thing that bothers me is when I hear people say I’m a flash in the pan,” May said, referring to Valhalla. “I know I’m not. I know I’m a good golfer. If I get through this surgery, I want to prove that I do belong out there.”