Micheel joins major mystery cast

US PGA: Journeyman pro the latest unknown to leap to fame in year that keeps defying the formbook
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The Independent Online

Shaun Micheel became the latest of the game's unknowns to upstage the superstars at the 85th US PGA Championship. If nothing could get more surprising than Ben Curtis winning The Open, and it was perhaps only to be expected that he would miss the cut here, the trend for someone to come out of the shadows to bask in the spotlight continued at Oak Hill.

Micheel took a two-stroke lead into yesterday's third round following a series of backwards steps by the leading contenders in the second round. The 34-year-old journeyman stole to the top of the leaderboard by birdieing four of his last five holes on Friday evening.

This might have been expected from a few others, but not in this year's topsy-turvy majors. The Masters was overshadowed by a row about Augusta National not having any women members, while the first day's play was completely washed out. The US Open was contested on a course that was once the plaything of the mafia.

Royal St George's was hot and fiery for The Open, Mark Roe was chucked out for a scorecard error and Curtis, the world's 396th-ranked player, pinched the claret jug from under the noses of the game's finest players.

At Oak Hill on Thursday a major championship was conducted while a state of emergency was in effect as large parts of New York and the Great Lake states, plus parts of Canada, suffered a massive power failure.

It has been Tiger Woods' output that has been unreliable this season in the majors, and even though he appeared to be making ground through the field as everyone else went backwards on Friday evening, he then went and bogeyed two of his last three holes.

Ernie Els took a double- bogey on his last hole. Mike Weir, as steely a competitor as they come, should have had the halfway lead wrapped up, but he caught the bug and bogeyed his last two holes.

And, of course, Phil Mickelson, who earlier in the day had led by three strokes, went south with two double-bogeys in three holes when he found the water twice. As the greens dried out and the fine old course that Oak Hill is showed itself to be a mighty tough customer, it was Micheel who showed the rest how to do it.

His 68 matched the best round of the second day, set earlier by Jose Coceres, and was one of only five rounds under par. The finish, playing on the front nine, made his round as he birdied the fifth and the sixth, saved par at the seventh, and then birdied the eighth and ninth. At three under, Micheel led by two at the halfway point from the Masters champion, Weir, and Billy Andrade, with Els, Mickelson and Adam Scott among those at one over.

All of which left only one question: who in the name of Ben Curtis is Micheel? Born in Orlando, he now lives in Memphis, and after stumbling around on mini-tours and overseas earlier in his career has spent the last four years on the PGA Tour, where his best result is a tie for third place at the BC Open last year.

He did win the 1998 Singapore Open on the Asian Tour, and a year later won on the circuit beneath the main Tour. This season, he has made the cut in 16 events out of 22 but finished in the top 10 only three times. Last week at The International, under a modified Stableford system, he failed to make the final day.

"After last week I would have been extremely shocked if you had told me I would be leading this tournament," Micheel said. "And I would have been even more shocked after hacking it out of the rough on the first three holes in the first round. I've played in two US Opens, but I have never seen rough like this.

"Players rate their careers by how many majors they have won. Heck, I've only played in three. Sure, I'd like to add my name to the list of names on the Wanamaker Trophy, but that's getting a bit ahead of ourselves. I haven't proven myself as a Tour winner. But it will an unbelievable experience to try and go out and do over the next two days what I've done for the last two."

Micheel does have a claim to fame, and it is a courageous one. At a mini-tour event in 1994, he was with another player, Doug Barren, on their way to the course when they saw an elderly couple drive down an embankment into a lake. They stripped to their boxers and dived in and got the couple out. Micheel received a bravery award but has not heard from the pair since.

"It was ironic I went on to lose the tournament because I kept hitting it in the water on the last few holes," he said.

Micheel is married to a lawyer who is expecting their first child in three months' time. He is the son of a FedEx pilot and likes to fly himself, although he has not yet got to the stage where he has his own plane. "My number one goal, after winning golf tournaments and supporting my little baby that is on the way, is to get a plane to make my life a little easier," he said. "Security at airports has got better, but that side of travelling frustrates me no end."

Woods, of course, has all the trappings, but would give a lot of money just to find a way to get the ball in the fairway. He made the cut safely enough at six over after rounds of 74 and 72 - the axe fell at eight over, sending home the likes of Davis Love, Sergio Garcia and Thomas Bjorn, who were a stroke too many.

But the world No 1, nine shots off the lead at halfway, survived only due to some miraculous putting. He ranked 102nd in fairways hit for the first two rounds, and it did not matter whether he had his restored old driver or any other club in his hands, he just could not avoid the lethal rough.

On the first two holes yesterday he missed the fairway at the first with a three-wood and at the second with an iron, dropping shots on each occasion. Tiger's abandonment of the driver belonging to his main sponsor drew a lot of publicity, but eventually it might dawn on him that the problem is not the implement being swung but the man doing the swinging.