2001: PGA Championship - 2000 runner-up tries to get back on track

Playing golf is hardly heavy lifting. But carrying a baby around can be. Bob May knows too well. He has had the back pain to prove it.

May took confidence and resultant momentum out of golf’s best head-to-head major duel in years at the 2000 PGA Championship. His brilliant play as the unlikely challenger who took Tiger Woods to the limit taught him he could compete at the game’s highest level. And subsequent results confirmed as much.

The week after losing that three-hole playoff by one stroke at Valhalla, May finished third at the Reno-Tahoe Open. In eight post-PGA starts in 2000, May had six top-25 finishes. That was heady stuff for someone who, until late June, had never had a PGA Tour top 10 in 52 tournaments. He was something of a journeyman on the rise, a late bloomer fulfilling promise once flashed as America’s best junior golfer.

But then his lower back gave out, and his little roll braked to a halt. He figures the injury is related more to child-care than to golf, the sport whose nature poses a hazard to healthy vertebrae.

“I was just starting to play well on the West Coast,” he says, “and, bang, this hits you.”

May was 12 under par through three rounds of the 2001 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. But he felt back pain and tightness during a third-round 66 at Bermuda Dunes. His fears were realized the next morning. “I couldn’t move,” he said. “My back was killing me.”

So he withdrew from the Hope Feb. 16 and did not play another competitive round until April 5 at the Masters. During those seven weeks off he rehabilitated his bulging L-4 and L-5 discs with renowned physical trainer Keith Kleven in their hometown of Las Vegas. During the forced sabbatical the 32-year-old May came to realize the stress of carrying around a baby, in this case daughter Madelyn, born last Sept. 25.

A couple of months after his first child, Trenton, was born in autumn 1997, May’s back went out.

“It seems like every time we have a child it happens,” May said, smiling. “So we’re not having any children anymore.”

Don’t get him wrong. He’s a low-key guy whose first priority is family. He says Madelyn’s birth is by far the best thing that has happened in his life since the PGA. He says if he had one day to live, he would spend all of it with wife Brenda and their two kids. It’s just that he has found baby-lifting with improper form to be detrimental to his profession.

“People don’t realize that picking up a 10-pound baby away from your body is like lifting 50 pounds,” May said. “It puts stress on your back. Now I think about posture in everything I do.”

Now May is something of a workout junkie. He exercises two to three hours every morning. Usually he starts at 5:30 a.m. and is back home around 8.

“I’m in a lot better shape now,” he says.

His golf game, too, has shown signs of improving condition. Since the Masters he has made the cut in 10 of 12 Tour starts, with three top-25 finishes. His best has been a tie for 11th at the Compaq Classic of New Orleans.

Not only has his lower back held him back this year – he ranks 87th in earnings compared with 29th in 2000 – so has his putting. May’s strength is ball-striking. His work on the greens has been streaky. Last year on Tour, May ranked 12th in greens in regulation but 99th in putting average. This year, through Aug. 1, had been more of the same: 42nd in total driving and 57th in GIR but 104th in putting average.

“It all depends on how good his putter is,” said Max Cunningham, May’s caddie of two years. “It’s just a matter of him making putts.”

When he’s away from golf and his family, his life is a matter of speed. Besides hunting, May’s hobbies are racing motorcycles and boats. Since the PGA, he purchased a 30-foot tunnel-bottom Eliminator with 2,200 horsepower that he’s gotten up to 160 mph.

He also owns three motorcycles, and he’s reached 140 mph in the desert, some 25 mph slower than his father Jerry’s high. May inherited his love of speed from his dad, who used to race cars and boats.

Some of the most important trips Jerry May made, though, were on the highway. As a gas station owner in Southern California, he used to drive his young son an hour every Sunday morning for a 7 a.m. lesson from legendary Bel Air Country Club pro Eddie Merrins. Next thing anything knew, May was qualifying for the 1985 Los Angeles Open at age 16 with a 67.

May was junior golf’s version of Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods. At 14, he didn’t lose one national junior tournament he entered. At 15, he became one of the youngest players to qualify for the U.S. Amateur and was America’s No. 2-ranked junior. Merrins, his coach and former UCLA golf coach, said May was “on a par with Jack Nicklaus or any other great player.”

The relationship of May and Woods traces to junior golf, when they were 16 and 9. They remain cordial acquaintances. But one thing they have not discussed is the 2000 PGA Championship.

“Everybody asks if we’ve talked about the PGA,” May said. “But it would be hard for him to say, ‘Hey, do you remember that PGA?’ You don’t want to rub salt in somebody’s wounds.”

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