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The Unknown Factor
Michael Bamberger
August 25, 2003
With the big names stuck in the rough, Shaun Micheel cruised to the PGA Championship and proved that the majors are now anyone's game
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August 25, 2003

The Unknown Factor

With the big names stuck in the rough, Shaun Micheel cruised to the PGA Championship and proved that the majors are now anyone's game

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At the Hyatt in downtown Rochester, N.Y., last week, a man from Ethiopia named Negede Israel delivered room service to Shaun Micheel. He brought Micheel a steak on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday and again on Thursday. On that first night Israel figured out that Micheel was in town to play in the PGA Championship. The second night he decided he liked him. The third night he blessed the golfer with good fortune. � "You are a very nice man," the room-service man said. "I am making a prayer that you have good luck." � "Thank you," the golfer said. � So Shaun Micheel had Negede Israel's prayers going for him...which is nice. But these days you don't need a prayer to make your first tournament win a major. All you need is skill and a chance. And as Tiger Woods and everybody else torturing themselves at the rough-clogged Oak Hill Country Club said last week, there's more depth in tournament golf than ever before. Last month the veil was lifted off Ben Curtis when he won the British Open, the first major he had ever played in. Last week's off-the-bench winner was Micheel (pronounced Ma-KEEL), who is now 1 for 3 in majors played. Negede Israel, new to golf, wasn't surprised by Micheel's win, and you shouldn't be either. Rod Pampling could win the next major, in Augusta in April, but you never know, it could be Toshi Izawa. Or Woods, if he gets his head and swing straight.

It's a strange new day in golf. For the first time since 1969 the four major championships were won by men who had never before won a major. The days of Tiger's winning majors by ungodly margins (he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots just three years ago) are over. Why? Because with the newest, hottest balls and titanium drivers, everybody can drive the ball 300 yards and straight. A lot of people can hit the ball high and stop it. And sooner or later everybody has four days of good putting, as Micheel, an ordinary putter 51 weeks a year, did last week at Oak Hill, where—did you hear about this?—the rough was vicious.

Ever since Woods won his first major, the '97 Masters, by 12 shots, the American golf authorities, those he-men at Augusta National, the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America, have been trying to figure out ways to make courses Tiger-proof. This year their plans all came together: Make every major sheer drudgery, like the U.S. Open. There have been hundreds of trees planted at Augusta National over the past six years, and this year there was actual rough. The days of freewheeling on that course are over. The U.S. Open is played at courses that are largely interchangeable, except for Pebble Beach and Shinnecock Hills (where it will be held next year), courses that aren't suffocating. Last week the PGA was played on a classic old U.S. Open course, but it was a U.S. Open course on steroids. The rough was—you likely know this by now—excessive: too much water, too much fertilizer, too much seed, too much science. If you drove into the Oak Hill rough, you chopped your ball out and made bogey (unless you were Micheel on Sunday, with Negede Israel on your side). If you hit into the snarling half-foot rough around any of the greens, you took out your sand wedge, plopped the ball on and made bogey. Oak Hill was an equal-opportunity golf course last week. Artistry took a beating.

"If you miss a fairway, it doesn't matter whether you're Tiger Woods or Shaun Micheel or Chad Campbell, you're probably going to have a poor lie, and you're probably going to be pitching out," said Micheel, who shot rounds of 69, 68, 69 and a final-round even-par 70.

So now golf is back to what it was in the old days, before Tiger took over and made it look easy, too easy in the view of some people who had suffered in the game all their lives. Now one major is again more than enough to distinguish a career. The PGA Championship has a host of winners who never won the Masters or the U.S. Open or the British Open. Bob Tway and Jeff Sluman and Wayne Grady and Mark Brooks come to mind. Shaun Micheel is a 34-year-old journeyman who is not a good bet to win another major. Doesn't matter. Last week he made his career complete...and made $1 million, too.

On Sunday he was paired with Campbell in the final group. When they assembled on the 1st tee, both at four under par, you needed a program to tell them apart. Both have round, unexceptional faces, small ears and noses, narrow eyes, knobby chins and short hair underneath their black CLEVELAND GOLF caps. They are both sons of the upper-middle class who grew up playing golf at country clubs. Campbell's father is an oil-field supervisor, and Micheel's a retired Federal Express pilot. FedEx is based in Memphis, which is why Micheel grew up there. He still lives there, with his wife, Stephanie, a lawyer, because that's the way he is, a homeboy.

Autograph seekers sometimes think Micheel is Campbell. As for Campbell, he was identified on the front page of the Sunday Rochester Democrat and Chronicle as being from New Zealand. No, that's Michael Campbell. Programs—and photo IDs—for everybody!

But by the time they reached the 18th tee, with Micheel leading the tournament at three under and Campbell a shot back, it was evident that Campbell and Micheel were not separated at birth. Campbell, who is 29, has had a career of steady progression. He won as an amateur, on the Hooters tour, on the Nike tour. He earned $825,000 last year as a PGA Tour rookie. In an SI player poll conducted in late April, his touring brethren identified him as a leading candidate to win a major. He will when he putts better than he did on Sunday.

Micheel knows how wearing professional golf can be. You could see it in the exaggerated exhalations he made before his tee shots on Sunday. You could see it when his already narrow eyes went envelope-thin as he clobbered a second-shot pitching wedge out of the rough and onto the green at the par-4 16th, where his birdie from 30 feet gave him a two-shot lead over Campbell. The only reason he could play the shot from the rough was because—lucky day—the grass was growing with him.

It was a long trip to that rough. For years Micheel was just another itinerant professional golfer, playing anywhere there was a purse—Singapore; New Bern, N.C; wherever. He first played the PGA Tour in '94 and made four cuts in 19 events. He made it back to the Tour in '97, when he made five cuts in 21 events. He didn't return to the Tour until 2000, when he finished 104th on the money list, then 136th the next year, then 105th last year.

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