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Never mind what the golf critics say, Micheel was a most worthy champion

Never mind what the golf critics say, Micheel was a most worthy champion

I was there, hunkered down near the 18th green at Oak Hill Country Club, covering the final hole of the 2003 PGA Championship, when Shaun Micheel struck the shot heard ’round the golf world.

Clinging precariously to a one-stroke lead, the world’s 169th-ranked player pulled a seven iron from his bag, surveyed the scene, and blasted a 174-yard beauty that rolled to within two inches of the cup. The crowd roared. Several of us exchanged “I-can’t-believe-what-I-just saw” double-take glances; and famed CBS broadcaster Jim Nance told millions of television viewers, “Add that one to PGA Championship lore.”

Micheel, who had never won before on tour, tapped in for victory, introducing himself to the sports world and history books in a major way. The 34-year-old came to town in hopes of making the cut, not history. With one swing, he underwent a transformation from golfing nobody to golfing somebody. His life would never be the same.

I thought it was a heck of a story. Rocky Balboa striking a blow on a fairway rather than in a ring. But I remember some prominent national and international golf scribes and sports columnists grumbling in the massive media tent afterward about Micheel being an unworthy champion.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Sure, the lion’s share of enthusiasts had come out in droves that week in hopes Tiger Woods would join the likes of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Curtis Strange in the pantheon of Hall of Fame golfers who had won championships at the storied East Course. But Oak Hill wound up taming Tiger, and the steely-nerved performance by a guy who arrived in Pittsford that week struggling to retain his tour card made for a compelling, unforgettable tale.

Micheel (pronounced MICK-heel) would go on to fashion a solid golf career. A few months after finishing second to Woods at the 2006 PGA, he clobbered Tiger in match play while finishing runner-up in another prominent tournament. In 2010, at Pebble Beach, Micheel became just the second player to score an albatross (a double-eagle) at a U.S. Open. His resume includes a victory on the Asian Tour and one on the Nike Tour, plus more than $10-million in career earnings. Yet, despite those lofty achievements, detractors and Twitter trolls came out of their holes every year around PGA time and groused that Micheel was a one-hit wonder.

Sadly, Micheel began to believe the people who took pleasure in raining on his parade. Their narrative became his narrative; that somehow he was undeserving of that PGA crown.

“I understand that people have their favorites,’’ said Micheel, who will be back at Oak Hill March 25 to headline a Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Greater Rochester gala. “They wanted to see Tiger win. Or one of the other big, established names. They didn’t want a story like mine, but that’s what they got. And I guess over time I became an apologist for my win to a certain degree. I’ve struggled with that. Still am to some degree.”

In retrospect, he believes that in his quest to win more majors, to prove the critics wrong, he may have become too driven and got away from the things that had made golf fun and him a PGA champion.

“I became obsessed with practicing,’’ he recalled recently via phone from his Memphis, Tenn. home. “I’d take a video camera with me to the range and analyze every shot. I overdid it. I wound up practicing more than I was playing and that was a bad thing. I wound up letting the scores I shot on the golf course affect my life off it. If I played well, I was happy to go out and be among people. And if I didn’t play well, I didn’t want to be seen in public.”

Eleanor Roosevelt told us that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent, and, after years of introspection, Micheel appears to be making peace with his victory and his golfing career. He is much more than a one-hit wonder. He has hit many spectacular shots along the way. His name belongs on the Wanamaker Trophy. No apologies are necessary. “It’s not like the PGA of America put all of our names into a hat the Wednesday before the start of the tournament and picked mine out and said, ‘It’s Shaun Micheel’s turn,’ ’’ he said. “I had to make that shot on the 72nd hole on Sunday, and a lot of shots before I got to that point. I think most people got that and appreciated that. But some weren’t good with me winning, and I guess I gave them permission to take away some of my joy.”

What they can’t take away is his achievement. It’s etched there in silver on that trophy and on an Oak Hill plaque commemorating one of the most famous shots in golf history. It’s a forever moment that enabled him to experience much more joy than sadness – and do so much good, on and off the course. “Golf has been great to me,’’ he said. “It has afforded me opportunities to do things I never would have been able to do had I had I not won that event. At some point, you have to let go of the negativity and celebrate the good parts of it.”

His return to Oak Hill for the gala and this May’s PGA is sure to boost his spirits. Throughout his career, Micheel has gone out of his way to give back, especially for causes involving children. Not long after winning his major, he established the Shaun Micheel Make-A-Wish Classic, which has raised $3 million dollars and granted 600 wishes. Big Brothers, Big Sisters holds a special place in his heart because as a teenager he saw its impact first-hand when he gathered with his father’s friends and their kids at his dad’s hunting lodge. One of the members of that group (Bruce) was a “Big” who frequently brought his “Little” (Don) to spend weekends hunting, riding ATVs and enjoying the outdoors.

“I could see their relationship was more like father and son,’’ Micheel said. “We all got along famously. What’s really nice is that 40 years later Bruce and Don are still in contact. It drove home to me how Big Brothers, Big Sisters can change the lives of kids and their mentors so positively. So, when they contacted me about being a part of this event, I couldn’t sign up fast enough.”

In addition to his philanthropic work, Micheel is giving back as an assistant golf coach at Butler University. He may be the only college golf coach with a major championship on his resume. “I’m still pursuing my playing career and I’m still based in Memphis, so I’m not there for every practice and match, but I get there when I can,’’ he said. “Golf has given me so much, and this is a way to show my gratitude. I try to impart my knowledge about technique and strategy, but I also try to provide some life lessons based on what I’ve experienced on and off the course.”

Micheel has battled injuries and illnesses throughout his career and says his game probably is at Champions (Senior) Tour level, but not good enough to win a PGA event. He can’t wait, though, to tee it up at Oak Hill in two months. As a former champ, the 54-year-old has an exemption to play in the tournament. He plans to arrive in Rochester a few days early, so he can play a practice round with his 19-year-old son, Dade.

“He doesn’t remember his first visit to Oak Hill because he was in his mother’s womb,’’ Micheel joked. “Stephanie was seven months pregnant, lugging him around the course, when I won that PGA. So, this opportunity to share a practice round with him is going to be a really special father-and-son moment.”

A circle-of-life moment. A chance for them to celebrate a time when Micheel made golf history and proved himself a most worthy champion.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.