One Year Later Curtis Victory Hard to Fathom

By Associated PressJuly 12, 2004, 4:00 pm
OSTRANDER, Ohio -- Bob Curtis showed up at sunrise, like he does every day, to mow the greens on a public golf course that his father-in-law built with a tractor and his son made famous with a claret jug.
Mill Creek Golf Club does not look like a course where British Open champions are bred.
It is hidden away in the heart of Ohio, down a two-lane road that winds past grain elevators and two-story houses, painted white with black shutters, American flags hanging from the balcony. Basketball rims (no nets) are hammered onto the sides of red barns with patches of dirt beneath them.
This Sunday morning was different.
Turning past a row of stately trees, the first thing Curtis noticed was a mobile television tower in the parking lot at Mill Creek. Sure, he was aware his son, Ben Curtis, was two shots out of the lead going into the final round of the British Open. But while folks in rural Ohio are strengthened by hope, they are grounded in reality.
Curtis trailed proven players like Thomas Bjorn and Davis Love III. He was tied with heavyweights Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. He was ranked No. 396 in the world, a PGA Tour rookie in his first major championship. Not many people gave him much of a chance.
Not even his dad.
``A television crew was out there and I said to them, 'You're optimistic. There's a long day ahead of him,'' Bob Curtis recalled. ``He had never won a PGA Tour event. He had never won a major. Shoot, he had never even played in a major. I thought, 'You've got too much time on your hands.'''
Before long, there were more people watching TV in the pro shop than playing on the golf course. When Curtis took the lead with six birdies on his first 11 holes, the marshal at Mill Creek stuck his head in the door and said, ``We've only got four groups on the course. Do I really need to be out there?''
They all settled in to watch one of the biggest upsets in golf history.
Curtis, who grew up next door to Mill Creek and as a 5-year-old practiced putting at night in his pajamas, made a 10-foot par putt on the final hole for a 2-under 69 on the diabolical links of Royal St. George's.
He was still two shots behind, and everyone figured his score would be good enough for second. But when Bjorn took three shots from a pot bunker and failed to make birdie on the final hole, the claret jug belonged to a 26-year-old rookie hardly anyone knew.
``I was comfortably sitting on my sofa at home watching the last few holes unfold,'' said Darren Clarke, who finished his final round earlier that Sunday. ``To be perfectly honest, I didn't know Ben at all. I didn't know who he was.''
A year later, it is still hard to fathom.
Not since Francis Ouimet's victory at the 1913 U.S. Open had a player won a major championship on his first try. Even then, Ouimet grew up across the street from The Country Club, so he wasn't a total unknown.
Curtis showed up in Sandwich, England, the weekend before the British Open and asked for a local caddie, and the first thing Andy Sutton said was, ``Ben who?''
A year later, Curtis goes to Royal Troon to defend more than his claret jug.
He is introduced around the world as the British Open champion, but hears whispers of ``fluke'' wherever he goes. Not long after his shocking victory, it seemed every question began, ``If you never win another tournament ... ``
``I still have to prove myself,'' Curtis said. ``But that claret jug will never go away. Look at the leaderboard. Everyone in the top 30 was there. Bjorn. Vijay. Tiger. Kenny Perry. Sergio. Davis. All those other guys were coming there to win.''
Curtis might have been the only guy who thought he had a chance.
``I remember sitting in bed about 11 o'clock, and I could tell (wife) Candace was nervous,'' he said. ``She rolled over and said, 'How do you feel about tomorrow?' I looked at her and said, 'I think I'm going to win.'''
Reality started to sink in with birdies on the seventh, ninth, 10th and 11th holes to take the lead.
And then there was the clock.
A week earlier, on a quiet Sunday afternoon before the stars arrived in Sandwich, Curtis and his caddie were finishing a practice round when the clock on the 18th tee showed it was 4:55 p.m.
``How great would it be if we were playing this hole at 5 'til 5 next Sunday?'' Sutton asked him.
Curtis made his third bogey in four holes at the 17th, and his hopes were fading fast. While he did struggle down the stretch, he was in the top five.
``When I got to the 18th tee, I looked at that clock and it was 5 'til 5,'' Curtis said. ``I said to Andy, 'Do you notice anything about the clock?' It made me put it all in perspective.''
What followed was a script that reads like fiction.
After making a gritty par on the 18th, a Royal & Ancient official told Curtis he was tied for the lead because Bjorn made double bogey on the 16th. By the time Curtis got to the range to prepare for a playoff, Bjorn bogeyed the 17th to fall one shot behind.
``That's when it hit me,'' Curtis said. ``My mind started racing a little bit. 'Is this really happening?'''
Standing on the far end of the practice range, Curtis heard a groan from the grandstand. Sutton walked out of the equipment trailer where he had been watching on TV and said, ``Ben, you're the Open champion.''
Back at Mill Creek, the clubhouse was rocking.
The TV stations never left, and Bob Curtis was giving interviews into the night. He finally got back to his house after midnight, so deliriously tired that he couldn't climb the stairs and slept on the couch.
The R&A toasted Curtis at a private reception, and more interviews followed. He finally got back to the IMG house in Sandwich and spent the rest of the night eating pizza and drinking champagne from the claret jug.
The flight home gave him time to reflect on a week that changed his life, and a putt that made him perhaps the most unlikely Open champion of them all.
``I pictured the last putt in my head for a couple of days,'' Curtis said. ``I remember the ball seemed like it was barely moving. Every athlete will tell you about times when things are in slow motion.''
Bob Curtis showed up at Mill Creek at sunrise last month during the Memorial Tournament, where his son recorded his first top-10 finish since the British Open.
Business was brisk as ever. Green fees are still in the $18-$39 range. The only difference is the notation at the bottom of the scorecard -- ``Where British Open champion Ben Curtis grew up.'' The pro shop sells shirts and caps to commemorate his victory at Royal St. George's. There are framed newspapers of the day Curtis shocked the world.
``If they get a good photo, they'll ask Ben if it can go on the wall,'' his father said. ``But he doesn't want this to become a shrine.''
It is still a public golf course in rural America that just happened to produce a British Open champion.
Fancy that.
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