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A Horse For The Gorse With a game ideal for Royal Troon, if not the PGA Tour, journeyman Todd Hamilton beat the world's best to win the British Open

July 26, 2004
July 26, 2004

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July 26, 2004

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A Horse For The Gorse With a game ideal for Royal Troon, if not the PGA Tour, journeyman Todd Hamilton beat the world's best to win the British Open

The sparkly names were all over the yellow-and-black British
Open leader board on Sunday afternoon--Ernie Els and Phil
Mickelson and even, for a while, Tiger Woods--all of them
playing for the claret jug and their place in golfing history.
They were elites looking to become more special yet, men whose
reputations rise and fall with every major they win or lose.
And in their midst was a working man, Todd Hamilton, of
Oquawka, Ill., married for 13 years to his high school prom
date, a million frequent-flier miles on his clubs and in the
lines around his narrowed eyes. He was paired with Els in the
day's final twosome at Royal Troon in Scotland, and he wasn't
playing his part. He wasn't going away.

This is an article from the July 26, 2004 issue Original Layout

Talk about your old-school pro. He built his swing on a public
nine-holer. There are metal spikes in his shoes and old Mizuno
blade irons--thinner than a teaspoon--in his bag. He doesn't have
a swing coach or a psychologist or a celebrity caddie. He's just
a golfer, trying to make money at the thing he does best. There
was a lucky quarter in his pocket on Sunday, minted in 1965, the
year he was born, and a poker chip marked Lady Luck. The story of
a player and his superstitions used to be boilerplate, but not
since golfers started measuring their body fat.

He's played in India and Pakistan and Thailand and Korea and,
primarily over the past decade, in Japan. This year, at 38, he
finally became a regular on the PGA Tour--the richest tour in the
world--after his eighth trip to Q school. Don't confuse Todd
Hamilton with Ben Curtis, the untested kid from Ohio who won last
year's British Open when the stars all bungled on Sunday.
Hamilton won four times in Japan in 2003, three times on windy,
seaside courses not too different from breezy Troon. He won the
Honda Classic in March, a stop on the PGA Tour's Florida swing.
Still, none of that made a name for him. When he was paired with
Woods in the third round of the Memorial tournament last month,
he stuck out his hand and said, "Todd Hamilton." At an event in
Japan last year he checked out of the tournament hotel, where the
rooms were $150 per night, and into his caddie's $50-a-night
hotel. When you're playing golf for money, you can never forget
that the less you spend, the more you keep.

Hamilton began the final round with a one-shot lead over the
lordly Els and two shots ahead of a threesome that included two
of golf's leading men, Mickelson, the Masters champion, and
Retief Goosen, the U.S. Open champion, plus Thomas Levet, a
Frenchman likely to be a Ryder Cup player come September. Woods
was four shots behind, and even though he no longer stands over
his ball as if he owns the course and every player on it, he
still has more major titles than all the aforementioned players
combined.

But Woods doesn't make players quake these days, and on Sunday in
Scotland he was never a serious threat to end his drought in
majors (now nine events long). Mickelson's play in the British
finale was a thing of beauty, as it has been all year: high
shots, low shots, shots curving left, shots curving right, his
endearing, impish smile, now another asset of his game. (Wherever
he goes, the crowds are behind him.) His final score at
nine-under left him a shot out of what looked to be a David and
Goliath playoff.

For a while it seemed as if Hamilton might earn the $1.35 million
first-place paycheck without putting in any overtime. He doesn't
have a game that will win on many PGA Tour courses, but it was
perfect for Troon, where you cannot allow the winds off the Firth
of Clyde to get hold of your ball. Hamilton hits low, running,
fading iron shots and spectacular low, running chips. He has
always been a superb putter, particularly on slow greens, and
Troon's were country-club speed. When he holed a little downhill
chip for a birdie on 14 on Sunday, the applause for the American
golfer of British ancestry was polite and respectful, but nothing
more. Els--winner of three majors, twice in playoffs--had played
his way back into contention after a double bogey on 10, but
after Hamilton's chip-in he looked as if he had been slugged in
the stomach, his face blank and blanched. You may remember the
many times Greg Norman looked the same way. Els's caddie, Ricci
Roberts, was left to speak for the team: "Good chip there, mate."

Hamilton came to the 72nd hole at 11 under par, with Els a shot
back. Mickelson and his Chiclets smile were already in the
scorer's hut. Els had the honor and smashed a drawing two-iron on
the par-4 home hole. Els has many shots Hamilton does not, and
that was one of them. Hamilton aimed his two-iron at a distant
church steeple and hit a weak fade through the suppertime
sunshine and the light rain and the slice wind and into the right
rough. As he walked the dead-flat fairway, lined by thousands of
spectators sitting in bleachers, he felt as if he were taking the
field in a football stadium on game day, but he felt no
adrenaline rush. He was calm. He was going to have a great payday
no matter what. Majors, he said, were never the ultimate goal for
him.

Hamilton made a bogey 5 on 18, pitching his third shot on from
the left rough and taking two putts. Els had 10 feet for a birdie
and a win. A free throw, really. Tiger, back in his prime, would
have buried that putt. Nicklaus, too. Seve and Watson, in their
days, the same. Norman? No. Els? "That putt," the South African
said, with his trademark candor and clipped accent, "I'm going to
be thinking about that putt for a while." It never scared the
hole.

For some Americans a trip to Scotland means adjusting to life
where the room keys still have teeth and the sinks have two
spigots, one for hot water, one for cold. Not for Hamilton. For
years, his professional M.O. has been to show up wherever there
was a purse, make the necessary adjustments to the course and
country and play gritty chip-and-putt golf, even if it was ugly
at times. In Japan he'd have rice wrapped in seaweed for
breakfast without complaint, if that's all there was. As an
American abroad, with his family on the other side of the world,
Hamilton was all business from Tuesday's practice round through
the last putt. At night he'd read American magazines and talk
hockey with his caddie and other American players over dinner.
Then on Sunday nights he'd retire to a Tokyo bar called Motown,
listen to old hits by the Supremes and close the place down.

But he won the Honda with his wife and kids there, and they were
at Troon last week too. His mother was also on the course,
carrying a rumpled Sunday newspaper that had accidentally left
her son's name off the list of third-round leaders. "If I can
find the guy who wrote this, I'm gonna give him a what-for," said
Jayne Pearson, the golfer's mother, divorced from Hamilton's
father, Kent, who was back in Oquawka. But nobody was overlooking
her son in the four-hole playoff, not after his closing 69. In
the grandstands at Troon there were new Hamilton fans gleefully
putting a "tenner" on the American to beat the world's No. 2
player in overtime. The British 10-pound note has Queen Elizabeth
II on one side--and Charles (Survival of the Fittest) Darwin on
the other.

Hamilton didn't view the playoff as David versus Goliath. "Ernie
is one of the great players in the game, but I've had enough
success that I knew if I played my best, I could beat him,"
Hamilton said. The playoff was on 1, 2, 17 and 18. They both made
pars on the first two holes. On 17, a long crosswind par-3, Els
blinked first. He played his tee shot with the rumble of a
passing jet in his ears and hit a soaring shot that started left
of the green and stayed there. He made bogey to Hamilton's par.
Then on 18, Els did what Els does, and Hamilton did what Hamilton
does. Els hit two magnificent iron shots but did not hole his
12-footer for birdie. Hamilton hit two weak fades with irons,
then played an extraordinary chip shot, putting it with a hybrid
long iron-fairway wood from 30 yards off the green. The shot
finished two feet from the hole. The 720,000 quid--and one-year
possession of the claret jug--were his.

Hamilton was not jubilant or teary in victory. He wasn't anything
except appropriate. He praised Stuart Wilson, the Scotsman who
finished as low amateur, and Els and the people who maintain the
golf course and run the championship and, "last but not least,"
the spectators. He sounded as if he knew what he was doing, and
he did. For several hours he gave interviews and signed
autographs in the clubhouse bar and chatted with men in blue
blazers and a boy with Down syndrome and the shoeshine guys in
the locker room. He knew exactly what had happened. The world's
oldest and grandest golf tournament was played on a course suited
to him, he played his game, and nobody played better. For that he
took home the professional's ultimate prize: a big, fat pile of
money. Nothing wrong with that.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN FEELING CHIPPER Excellent around the greens and with a putter in his hands, Hamilton won a four-hole playoff--and his biggest check--against Els.COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN A BIT O' TROUBLE Els made a miracle par out of a bush on Sunday (top), while Mickelson took a sandy route on No. 2.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES/WIREIMAGE.COM; UP AND DOWN Winning a major got a rise out of Hamilton; Els was haunted by a missed 10-foot putt.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (ELS) [See caption above]

For more British Open coverage, including Gary Van Sickle's
analysis and Frank Beard's mailbag, go to si.com/golf.

After Hamilton holed a downhill chip for birdie on 14 on Sunday,
Els looked as if he had been SLUGGED IN THE STOMACH.
Hamilton WAS NOT JUBILANT or teary in victory. He wasn't anything
except appropriate.