Shaun Micheel interview: ‘Winning 2003 PGA Championship haunted me - I had my walk-off moment’
It’s Sunday at the 2003 PGA Championship and Shaun Micheel has arrived at Oak Hill with a share of the lead and a mindset that would give most sports psychologists sleepless nights.
“I was a wreck,” he admits. “I was afraid of losing, my mind was cluttered with a lot of negativity and I was sick to my stomach. I hated what I was going through.”
This was only the third time Micheel had teed it up at a major, his appearances at the US Open amounting to a missed cut in 1999 and a tie for 40th two years later, and he was yet to win on the PGA Tour.
There had been little opportunity to reflect on missed putts or wayward tee shots up to this point in the week, with several late-night drives required to find a pharmacy for his pregnant wife.
Micheel though sat top of the leaderboard alongside Chad Campbell at the end of the third round, a lofty perch that he had not even considered a few days earlier.
“I always looked at the game as two different tournaments,” Micheel says. “It was the Thursday and Friday to make the cut, and then the Saturday and Sunday. I regret that, it held me back.
“Heading to Oak Hill, no expectations of winning. I just wanted to make the cut. But each day I played, I got a little bit more confident. There were moments when some tournaments I had blown were creeping into my mind - I just didn’t want this to be another one.”
Nerves eased as the final round got underway, a birdie at the first coupled with a bogey from Campbell moving Micheel two shots clear. Tim Clark had pulled level by the turn, but the South African carded three straight bogies to drop out of contention. Micheel led Campbell by two heading to the 17th tee.
Cue some advice from a member of the crowd. “I put my tee in the ground, stepped back and somebody shouted: ‘Don’t pull a Jean van de Velde!’” Micheel remembers.
Van de Velde had a three-shot lead arriving at the final hole of the 1999 Open at Carnoustie, but that crumbled away as he made a triple-bogey and he lost the play-off that followed to Paul Lawrie.
Micheel did not require extra holes or any further audience participation as, from 175 yards out on the 18th fairway, he hit a stunning seven iron to two inches to leave himself a putt that even his heckler would not have missed.
“I got to the green, marked my ball and knew I was going to win,” Micheel says. “I told my caddy that I couldn’t believe I had just won a Tour event. He replied: ‘This isn’t a Tour event, it’s a major.’”
A nearby Wendy’s drive-thru was his first celebratory stop-off as champion, presenting a sizeable challenge for the unfortunate driver of the stretched limo provided by tournament organisers.
Micheel had sat top of the leaderboard for the entire weekend on his way to major glory, his victory not coming via a late Sunday charge or with the help of capitulation elsewhere.
But, in the months and years that followed, the reality of being a major champion set in. More practice hours than ever were put in, the “quest for perfection” all-consuming, yet the results did not follow and a second win never came.
“I was haunted by what happened to me in 2003,” Micheel admits. “I always wanted to validate my name on the trophy and my name amongst those hall-of-famers with another win. Each shot I hit was life and death. The trophy hung over my head and followed me everywhere.
“It’s been a difficult part of my personal life. That bled into my relationships obviously with my wife and my family. If I didn’t play well, I didn’t want to be seen.”
The manner of his victory did not help Micheel’s mental struggles. “When you win a major as your first Tour victory, you’re at a loss,” he says. “Especially the way I finished, how could I upstage that? I had my walk-off moment.”
Micheel returns to Oak Hill to compete at this week’s PGA Championship, uncertain of how many more times he will take his place in the field as a past champion.
Each shot I hit was life and death - the trophy hung over my head
He has been given permission to play two practice rounds with his son, born three months after his win, and it will serve as a reminder of the 20-year journey he has been on. Validation need not come from a number.
“Nobody is ever satisfied with what they’ve accomplished,” Micheel says. “If I won once, why didn’t I win twice? If I won five times, why didn’t I win ten?
“But you don’t have to win to make a living. I never dreamed of having a plane or six houses or multiple Ferraris. My career wasn’t based on that. I just wanted to play golf because I loved it.”
No purchase would bring as much satisfaction as his major-sealing seven iron anyway, still proudly on display at home, with a request from the World Golf Hall of Fame among those politely declined over the past two decades.
“If I was Tiger Woods with 15 majors and all these different clubs that I could donate, I would,” Micheel laughs. “But having one, I’m going to hold on to it.”