Shaun Micheel Shares Difficult Journey From 2003 PGA Championship Win
Shaun Micheel knew he needed help.
For nearly two decades, he suffered in silence after capturing the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. It wasn’t the win that bothered him, but the ensuing obsession of trying to win again – and the painstaking search to try and recapture the magic that he felt during one, magical week in Rochester.
“Mentally and emotionally, it just has been devastating for me,” Micheel says.
In May 2022, Micheel began talking with Dr. Dale Kelman, a psychologist close to his home in Memphis, Tennessee. The pair met a handful of times and Micheel felt comfortable opening up to her and sharing things he had never told anyone.
Knowing the Signs But Not Listening
For years, Micheel brought his work home from the golf course, ruining countless vacations because he thought he should be practicing instead. It stole the joy out of his home and hurt his relationships with his family. Micheel and his wife, Stephanie, are childhood sweethearts, who met when they were 11-years old. She’s been a sounding board for him, offering help when she can, and telling her husband, for years, that he should seek professional help.
But Micheel didn’t listen. He could fix himself, he thought. Perhaps it was the stigma of admitting he needed help, something that wasn’t as widely accepted amongst athletes then as it is today.
Or maybe it was just fear.
Micheel knew all too well the impact that mental illness could have on a family. His mother, Donna, was diagnosed with a mental disorder. Micheel lives with the painful memory of her wandering away from their home, unable to find her way back, and searching for her. He looks back on those times and wonders why he didn’t take his own mental health more seriously.
In 2022, Micheel finally sought treatment – a last-ditch effort to rediscover the joy of playing golf and find happiness at home.
In August of that year, three months into beginning therapy, Micheel received an ominous text from Dr. Kelman. Something was wrong and she couldn’t meet. Weeks later, her husband contacted Micheel to let him know that his wife had been dealt a devastating blow. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma, which is a fast-growing brain tumor. Dr. Kelman died two months later from the same cancer that took Micheel’s father, Buck, in 2016.
“I battled this with my dad for 10 months and I just couldn’t believe it,” Micheel says, fighting back tears. “It took me so long to work up the courage to see somebody and then she dies.”
Although it took nearly 20 years for Micheel to seek help after his win at the PGA Championship, he knew immediately that his life had changed.
A Foundation Shaken To The Core
Granted, there were tons of perks that came with his win at Oak Hill. Getting into the Masters Tournament and the other majors was a huge bonus for Micheel who had fought for years just to keep his PGA Tour card. And the five-year exemption, which he also earned with his victory, eased the pressure to perform.
“Professionally, it afforded me a lot of opportunities. It allowed me to avoid Q-School for a few years,” Micheel says with a laugh. “Personally, there was a definite validation of all the hard work, all the travels, all of the practice, time away from home.”
In 2003, Micheel was competing in only his third major, and first PGA Championship, when he won at Oak Hill. He had played on the PGA Tour off and on for nine years and was ranked at No. 169 in the world coming into the week. The improbability of his win captured the golf world’s attention, and his thrilling 7-iron, which he stuck within inches of the cup at the 72nd hole to seal his first victory, only added to the intrigue of this journeyman pro turned major hero.
Micheel’s foundation was shaken to its core. In the span of 16 weeks, he became a major champion, a father, and a famous figure. And as he waded into a new world, Micheel gave himself little grace, practicing every day for 4-5 hours with the hope that the swing that propelled him to major glory would never leave him.
“I just got into this search for perfection. I didn’t want to lose that feeling that I had,” Micheel recalls.
None of the changes Micheel made helped his game. And the poorer he performed, the more he wanted to retreat from the public eye. He began playing late afternoon practice rounds to avoid being seen. And when he didn’t play well, he didn’t even want to leave the house.
“It was the way that I felt about my game, I just didn’t want to be around anybody,” Micheel says. “For a long time, I just wanted to go back to anonymity.”
The Battle With Father Time
Then, in 2007, while standing on the seventh tee in New Orleans his left shoulder made an audible popping sound. His playing partner, Boo Weekly, was the first to notice.
One year later, while practicing on the range at Bay Hill, Micheel’s teacher at the time, Matt Killen, asked if he’d made a change to his swing. They took a quick video of Micheel’s swing – it had changed dramatically. An MRI revealed that Micheel had been playing for 14 months with a torn labrum and a partially torn bicep tendon.
“In all honesty, I probably should have stopped playing in ‘07, but I was worried because I was like, ‘My exemption is up next year. What am I going to do if I have to go out for a year?’” Micheel remembers, the stress of that choice still palpable in his voice all these years later. “That’s definitely part of the regret that I have in my career – making that decision.”
He underwent shoulder surgery and was out of the game for 10 months. When Micheel returned to the PGA TOUR, he never was able to recapture that elusive feeling he experienced at Oak Hill, the one he had fought for so long to hang on to. His win at the PGA Championship would be his lone victory in 401 starts and in 2011, Micheel played his final full season on tour.
“Father time – it’s brutal. Everybody’s career comes to an end,” says Micheel, who became eligible for the PGA Tour Champions in 2019. “You’d rather choose to leave. But that’s not always the case.”
Over the past 20 years, Micheel has had plenty of regrets about prioritizing golf ahead of his own physical well-being and mental fitness, but in recent years has become a better advocate for himself. When he looks back at what he wrote in his journal about the little tweaks and changes he experimented with, all he can do is shake his head in disgust, and sometimes chuckle, at the lengths he went to in order to try and win again.
“I never wanted to be known as this one hit wonder, where I wrote this incredible, incredible song and people loved it for a time, and now they don’t like it anymore,” Micheel admits. “Well, how do I write another one? I just couldn’t.”
Writing A New Song With Family By His Side
Micheel wrote a beautiful song with his win two decades ago at Oak Hill, and it’s where, this week, he will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of his victory. This time around, his son Dade will play a practice round with his dad and get a chance to see the plaque on the 18th hole from the exact spot that his father hit that unforgettable approach. Stephanie and Marin, their second child, will also share in the week with Micheel.
Despite all the pain he has endured in the wake of his win, Oak Hill still holds a special meaning to the 2003 Champion.
“I loved that place from the moment I saw it,” says Micheel. “The membership has embraced me. They make me feel like I’ve won 15 majors like Tiger, and Jack with his 18.
“I love being there.”
Forever impacted by his win at Oak Hill, Micheel suffered mightily to win just one more time. While he failed in that quest, his journey yielded priceless lessons about the value of life, happiness and family. And he’s passed those lessons along to the Butler Men’s Golf Team, for which he serves as an assistant coach. When he’s asked for a bit of advice, he tells them, “Don’t let your scores that you shoot on the course determine your happiness off of it.”
For nearly 20 years Micheel struggled alone, but he wants his team to know they don’t have to make that same mistake.
“I’ve suffered in silence for a long time. It’s one of my regrets not seeking any outside counsel,” Micheel says frankly. “It’s a lonely existence sometimes as a professional golfer. I’ve been doing this for 31 years where you’re just on your own, but you do have help. You do.”