Fifteen Years Later, Shaun Michael Finally Feels Worthy

This ought to be a week that Shaun Micheel savors, returning to a major championship where he can wrap himself in gauzy memories of his finest achievement. Instead, he approaches the 100th PGA Championship with a familiar gnawing anxiety, conscious that every mention of his “once upon a time” fairytale victory in 2003 brings detractors eager to emphasize the “once.”

“I look forward to getting back, but I have some trepidation about the noise that’s going to start appearing on social media before too long,” he said last weekend.

Like the swallows of Capistrano, the trolls of Twitter start circling Micheel at a predictable point in the calendar, chirping about how that major was the sole win of his PGA Tour career. That’s true, of course. Just as the 1969 U.S. Open was Orville Moody’s only success before the senior circuit. The insinuation is that Micheel was an unworthy winner, a Forrest Gump who stumbled into a history book that he should only have read.

It’s an easy charge to level. Troll prosecutions always are. The problem is Micheel began to believe the case against him.

Fifteen years ago he was a 34-year-old journeyman, plying his trade in unglamorous precincts with wins on the Asian and Nike tours. When he hit that famous 7-iron to within inches on the 72nd hole, it became license for his knockers to dismiss him not just as a one-win wonder, but a one-shot wonder.

“It means something different to me now than it did then,” Micheel said of that long-ago triumph at Oak Hill. “I remember standing on the green with my caddie, and one of the first things I said was, ‘I can’t believe I just won my first PGA Tour event.’ And he just laughed. As I look back now, I feel a little bit of sadness about it.”

A sadness born of misplaced guilt. He mentions several more accomplished golfers still denied the imprimatur of a major title, suggesting he sees himself as undeserving.

“I’ve definitely battled that over the years. I did win the tournament. I played great. It was a strong field at a great golf course,” he said. “But I’m not sure I earned the place I have in history.”

So much so that Micheel admits to feeling inadequate at the annual PGA Champions dinner among stars such as Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.

“I look at their careers and I look at mine. And it’s unfortunate I have that self-reflection. It’s really sad the way I look at it,” he said.

“I didn’t expect life to be as difficult as it was post-PGA. I was relatively unscathed in the beginning. Social media wasn’t there, so I wasn’t having to dodge missile strikes every time someone mentioned my name. I have anxiety because I get a lot of negativity around this time of the year. I think I’m a worthy champion. It’s just unfortunate I wasn’t able to back it up.”

That’s a psychologically corrosive notion for a midcareer sportsman to adopt – that his long-awaited triumph demands further validation, that instead of representing a crowning achievement it is rather the starting blocks for a new race he’ll struggle to run.

Micheel tried, of course. Only Tiger Woods was good enough to deny him a second PGA title in ’06 at Medinah. But his antagonists scarcely noticed. Veteran punslinger Dan Jenkins fired off a drive-by tweet declaring “Sean Micheel” the worst-ever PGA winner. The champ shot back that at least the Wanamaker Trophy’s engraver had a steady hand and sound mind when it came to correctly spelling his name.

Micheel turns 50 in January. He’s had a rough few years, during which he lost both parents and struggled badly with his game. Still, he insists he’s excited to start playing with guys his own age on the PGA Tour Champions and already is writing letters to ask for sponsor exemptions. Even winning a major doesn’t get him unfettered access to the most closed shop in sports.

A lot of competitors will drive into Bellerive this week knowing they are not good enough to win a PGA Championship. Micheel felt the same, even long after his name was on the trophy. It’s taken him 15 years to start believing that maybe it belongs there.

“I can look myself in the mirror and realize it wasn’t luck. I didn’t finish three hours ahead of time and the wind started blowing 30 mph and everybody just fell back,” he said. “I mean, I won the tournament. I deserve to be on that trophy.”

Golfweek, August 5, 2018.

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