A Major Major Upset Playing like a hardened vet, unknown and untested Hooters Tour escapee Ben Curtis won the British Open

July 27, 2003

To win the British Open, the oldest championship in all of golf,
you have to be a steely old bastard and also a wise one. You
have to be able to read wind direction with your nose, know the
difference between a brown green and a green one, figure out the
humps and hollows of old, bony fairways. You must have enough
experience in seaside golf, and in life itself, to accept the
unholy bounces that will take your good shots and hurl them into
the hay. You must already be a winner of great tournaments, an
internationalist. You must be Ben Hogan or, as he is dead,
Tiger Woods or Vijay Singh or Davis Love III or Thomas Bjorn of
Denmark, the four world-class talents who, coming down the
stretch, were in excellent position to win the claret jug on
Sunday at Royal St. George's Golf Club, on the English Channel.

Or you could be Ben Curtis, the guy who won.

Ben Curtis is a 26-year-old golfer who still lives part of the
time with his parents in a brick farmhouse built in 1829 on Main
Street in Ostrander, Ohio (pop. 405), and who learned to play on
the rich soil of the course his maternal grandfather constructed
30 years ago, when he decided to convert his pig farm into a
muni. Ben Curtis is a self-taught, self-coached, no-nonsense
professional, narrower in the shoulders than in the waist, with a
1950s-style Buckeye buzz cut, golf shirts you could buy at
Marshalls and rumpled cotton khakis. He is a slightly built man
who a year ago was playing on the Hooters Tour and who qualified
for the British Open only by way of his 13th-place finish at the
Western Open in Chicago earlier this month, in the 15th PGA Tour
event of his life. The winner of the British Open is a man who in
May missed the cut at the Memorial tournament--played in Dublin,
Ohio, 15 miles from Ostrander--his game all fouled up by the
pressure of having scores of friends and family following him.

Meet Ben Curtis, your new champion golfer for the year, class of
2001 at Kent State, where he met his fiancee, Candace Beatty. In
her sensible sneakers and mid-length denim skirt and pink blouse,
she climbed up and down the baked dunes of St. George's on Sunday
and brought the tips of her fingers to her mouth when a
well-endowed female streaker raced across the 18th hole during
the awards ceremony. Her man did her proud. Curtis barely glanced
at the naked lady. More to the point, he finished a shot ahead of
Singh and Bjorn and two shots ahead of Love and Woods. He was the
only golfer to play the 72 holes on the fiendishly difficult golf
course below par, which he bettered by a single shot on rounds of
72, 72, 70 and 69.

He did it, said his Sunday playing partner, Phillip Price, the
Welsh Ryder Cup player, by doing many things right and almost
nothing wrong. Curtis was one of 11 players who didn't make worse
than bogey on any hole in the championship. "It's not a glamorous
game he plays," Price said after the tournament. "But he's in
play, he putts beautifully and he has our three-quarter,
under-the-wind shot as if he's been playing it all his life."
Curtis has an unhurried rhythm with every club, most particularly
the putter. He's a smart golfer, in the Jim Furyk mold: not
overpowering, but a player who will most likely play hard courses
well and struggle in the weeks when he has to shoot 25 under to
win.

He became the first golfer to win the first major tournament in
which he played since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open. His
win combines the best elements of John Daly's wild-thing victory
at the 1991 PGA Championship, which Long John got into as the
ninth alternate, and Jack Fleck's everyman victory at the 1955
U.S. Open, in which the club pro defeated Hogan in a playoff.

Back in Ostrander, in the modest Mill Creek Golf Club clubhouse,
the great moment was almost missed by Curtis's family and
friends. The gang was all there, gathered around the TV to watch
Ben play in, when the satellite reception was suddenly lost. The
screen frequently froze. The golfer's father, Bob, the Mill Creek
superintendent, and mother, Janice, a manager of the course,
resorted to following their son on a website.

Regardless, they could picture his face. It doesn't change. "Ben
doesn't show emotion and he doesn't say a whole lot," the father
was saying on Sunday, with the game still on. "Right now I'm
thinking, He's been playing decent, but where does this come
from? I mean, he's ranked 396 in the world. With Ben, it's always
where he's playing next and how much does he have to earn to keep
his card." With his win Curtis now is ranked No. 35 in the world
and has a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour. He's set. For
Singh and Bjorn and Woods and Love, last week was about leaving a
mark on the game. Curtis had more at stake. He was trying to find
a home in golf.

The winner, really, should have been Bjorn or Woods, who often
seemed subdued and joyless last week. Tiger lives for winning
majors, and he hasn't won one for all of 13 months now, since the
2002 U.S. Open. Call it a slump at your own peril, but it is true
that guys are no longer hiking in when his name is heading north
on the leader board.

The great man and the great Dane lost shots on Thursday that they
spent three days trying to get back. But once a shot is lost,
it's on the ledger forever. On Thursday morning, when it was wet
and blowy, Woods sent his opening tee shot right of the first
fairway, into snarling, spongy, yard-high rough. Woods and the
small army with him never found the ball, and it cost him two
shots. Of course, Woods being Woods, he clawed his way back into
the championship. Much later, a spectator claimed to have
recovered Woods's inaugural ball. The two strokes, of course,
could not be recovered. They were spent.

Thursday was expensive for Bjorn as well. On the 17th hole the
32-year-old Ryder Cup player, seeking his first major title,
failed to get his ball out of a bunker and whacked his club in
the sand, for which he incurred a two-stroke penalty (LIFE OF
REILLY, page 84). How much would he pay to get those two shots
back? Many euros, except such strokes cannot be bought.

Playing with Love in the final twosome on Sunday, Bjorn had a
three-shot lead when he missed a 25-foot par putt on 15. Gary
Evans, the English professional who finished a shot out of last
year's British Open playoff, looked up at the locker-room TV and
said, "Welcome to the pressure cooker." A swami, Evans. On the
par-3 16th Bjorn needed three swipes to get out of a greenside
bunker and made double bogey. On the par-4 17th, he drove into
the rough and ultimately failed to get up and down, making bogey.
Needing a birdie on the difficult, 460-yard par-4 18th to force a
playoff with Curtis, Bjorn was short of the green on his
approach, then could only stare as his chip fell off to the
right.

Curtis, the first player to arrive at Royal St. George's and
register for the championship, came without his regular caddie
(who had a visa problem). So IMG, the agency that represents
Curtis (as well as Woods), arranged for a veteran European tour
caddie, Andy Sutton, to work for him. On his final hole on
Sunday, in the fourth-to-last pairing, Curtis made an
eight-footer for par, leaving him in second place, two shots
behind Bjorn when he went into the scorer's trailer. He was
pulled out by Sutton after Bjorn was done playing in the sand.
"C'mon, we could be in a playoff," the caddie said. "You've got
to go to the range and chip a few." Like the face of Big Ben, the
London landmark the golfer saw on a day of touring last week, the
expression on Ben Curtis's face never changed. Even with victory
secured and Candace clutching him and shrieking, he remained
impassive.

When the long Sunday was over, Bjorn and his wife walked to their
car, linked by their young daughter, Filippa. The golfer held the
girl's left hand, the mother had her right. Every three or four
steps they lifted the squealing little girl into the air, higher
than some of Bjorn's fateful bunker shots. If his world had
ended, you could not tell. The European golfers show an uncommon
grace in defeat: Jose Maria Olazabal at the Ryder Cup at
Brookline in '99, Jean Van de Velde two months before that at
Carnoustie. You saw it again on Saturday, when the veteran
English golfer Mark Roe, after shooting a 67, was disqualified
for signing the wrong scorecard. "The rules of golf are there to
protect the game," Roe said placidly. There's more than one way
to earn a permanent place in the lore of the game.

Curtis chose the best way. In Sunday's long dusk Mark Steinberg,
the IMG agent who represents Woods, was pressed into extra duty
squiring Curtis's fiancee and two of his cousins, who came "all
the way from America," as the winner said in his simple, charming
victory speech before the packed bleachers around the 18th green.
Within the small Curtis entourage being led into the crowded
press tent by Steinberg, there was understandable
hyperventilating going on. "Everybody needs to calm down," the
agent told his temporary charges.

The agent wasn't, of course, speaking of golf's newest champion.
Ben Curtis is always calm, even when he sees his name engraved on
the silver trophy alongside the names of Tom Watson and Greg
Norman and Nick Faldo, all of whom played superbly last week, and
also Bill Rogers and Kel Nagle and Fred Daly, who peaked with
their Open wins.

In the press tent Curtis cited a threesome of Americans on the
jug and in the pantheon of golf: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and
Bobby Jones. "Right now, many people are probably saying, 'Well,
he doesn't belong there,' but I know I do," the winner said. "So
that's all that matters." Twenty-six years old, one major played
and one major won, and already so steely and so wise.

COLOR PHOTO: ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES [T of C] LINE 'EM UP British Open champ Ben Curtis will be reading greens at the Greater Hartford Open on Thursday (page 46). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NEIL TINGLE/ACTION PLUS/ICON STEADY COURSE Curtis navigated the links prudently, avoiding the big numbers that torpedoed other contenders. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK FORE LORN Woods's errant drive into the hay on his first shot in the tournament resulted in a lost ball and a triple bogey. COLOR PHOTO: BRANDON MALONE/ACTION IMAGES/ICON QUICKSAND Bjorn's futile and dispiriting swipes in the bunker at 16 brought him back to the pack, where Curtis was waiting. COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN LOVING CUP As Ben posed with Candace, his parents, Janice and Bob, and brother Nick (striped shirt) celebrated in Ostrander. COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU [See caption above]

"He's in play, he PUTTS BEAUTIFULLY and he has our three-quarter,
under-the-wind shot as if he's been playing it all his life,"
Price said of Curtis.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)