Bob May is standing over the most important putt of his life, a 15-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole of the 82nd PGA Championship. His palms are sweaty, his mouth dry. All the air has seemingly been sucked out of the large crowd on hand, producing a thunderous silence. Slowly, agonizingly, May's ball tracks toward the hole, and as it tumbles out of sight, a rousing cheer ripples through the Las Vegas City Council chamber. May, huddled over a TV with the mayor at the front of the expansive room, turns to the 100 or so in attendance and offers an embarrassed smile and a sheepish, halting wave.
Seventeen days after he sank that momentous putt, May is being feted by his adopted hometown with a splashy ceremony at city hall. Ordinarily as emotionless as a Buckingham Palace guard, May will say after the ceremony, "Sure, I was a little choked up. The magnitude of this honor really got to me. I guess what happened at the PGA was a bigger deal than I thought."
What happened at the PGA was that Tiger Woods won a golf tournament, while May won the hearts of a nation of fans. May is such an unassuming guy that he has always had a listed phone number, and in the 24 hours after the PGA he was swamped with about 200 calls. Shortly thereafter May was at dinner and an anonymous fan picked up his bill, sending over a note that said, "It was about time somebody stepped up and challenged him." Back home in Las Vegas, May pulled into a car dealership and wound up posing for pictures with the entire starry-eyed staff.
Described by his wife, Brenda, as "a boy with toys," May, 31, drove off the lot that day with a shiny new truck—deeply discounted—and in the heady days since the PGA he has also pulled the trigger on plans to build his dream boat, a 28-foot, twin-engine, 1,000-horsepower speed demon that should exceed 150 mph, not to mention $200,000. But don't worry, May can cover it. The $540,000 he won at the PGA was nicely supplemented by the $204,000 he earned the next week with a third-place finish at the Reno- Tahoe Open. Four weeks ago, May signed on to represent a fancy new country club outside Vegas, and he and the sharpies at International Management Group continue to mull offers large and small. As if dealing with newfound fame and fortune weren't enough, post- PGA the Mays have also celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary, thrown a birthday party for their son, Trenton, who turned three on Sept. 14, and prepared for the birth of their second child, Madelyn, who was born on Sept. 25. With typical understatement, May says, "It's been a little crazy." With a smile he adds, "But a good crazy."
May is determined to enjoy the whirlwind, because he's an overnight sensation who has been two decades in the making. May was introduced to the game by an aunt and uncle at age eight, and within a year he had won his first tournament. (He still has the trophy to prove it.) He got his cool under fire from his father, Jerry, who was an amateur drag racer in the early 1960s and for a couple of years held a national speed record for gas-fueled sedans. Later in life Jerry began racing boats as a hobby, and little Bob picked up his dad's verve for velocity. At seven he asked for, and received, a Honda dirt bike for Christmas. Soon, however, the bike was gathering cobwebs, as was all of his soccer and baseball gear. Bob had thrown himself into golf, often hitting eight to 10 buckets of balls a day at the Golden Tee Golf Center in Buena Park, Calif. (Eventually he would get a job at the range so he wouldn't have to pay for balls.)
In 1983 he became the first 15-year-old to qualify for the U.S. Amateur since 1955, when a chubby kid named Nicklaus did it. At 5'6�" and 135 pounds, May was already a pugnacious player, relying on straight driving, precise iron play and an almost unhealthy focus. May sprouted exactly a half inch in college, but his game matured dramatically as he led Oklahoma State to the 1991 NCAA championship and earned a spot on one of the great Walker Cup teams in history, alongside David Duval and Phil Mickelson, among others. May went 3-1 in the U.S. victory, and shortly thereafter he turned pro.
May's longtime coach, Eddie Merrins, the head pro at Bel-Air Country Club, helped put together potential financial backers from among his well-heeled membership, including radio personality Rick Dees. On a fall day in '91 May showed up for an audition. From Bel-Air's elevated 1st tee the gorgeous UCLA campus shimmered in the distance, and "I could have sworn when Bob hit the ball it was going to land on the roof of Pauley Pavilion," Dees recently told the Los Angeles Times. "I was stunned. He just throttled the earth, and I heard Chinese voices coming out of this hole." In the end 10 Bel-Air regulars, among them Dees and actor Joe Pesci, shelled out a total of $75,000. May was on his way.
Alas, he played like my cousin Vinny at that year's Q school and soon thereafter lit out for the Asian tour, though not before getting engaged to Brenda. They had met two years earlier in the parking lot at Eskimo Joe's, a noted Stillwater, Okla., watering hole. With Brenda still finishing her degree in elementary education at Oklahoma State, May spent 12 weeks in Asia all by his lonesome. "It was a rude awakening," he says. "It wasn't what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be." Among the many eye-openers for May was stumbling upon villagers bathing in the on-course water hazards.
May landed on the Nike tour in the fall of 1992 and had some encouraging results. In '93 he hit his stride, finishing fourth on the Nike money list and securing his playing privileges on the big Tour. That August he and Brenda bought a house in Summerlin, a bucolic planned community on the outskirts of Las Vegas. May, finally, was on his way.
Until, that is, he suffered a back injury early in 1994. He tried to play through the pain, with disastrous results. For the season May missed a numbing 14 cuts by a single stroke, winning only $31,079. "You start doubting yourself instead of believing in your abilities," he says. "Once you do that, you might as well pack it in."