SANDWICH, England – Ben Curtis is no fluke.
At least not now.
After winning the British Open eight years ago at Royal St. George’s as a rookie, Curtis has gone on to win twice more on the PGA Tour. He played on a winning Ryder Cup team (not many Americans can say that). And he nearly won another major in the 2008 PGA Championship until two bad tee shots over the last five holes made him a runner-up, two shots behind Padraig Harrington.
Some players wouldn’t mind a career like that.
Even so, any conversation about a “fluke” winner at a major invariably includes Curtis, and he’s probably higher on any such list than he should be.
What made Curtis such a surprise in 2003 at Royal St. George’s was that not many outside his immediate family knew who he was. That included the local caddie he hired for the week, Andy Sutton, who’s first reaction to being told of an American in need of a caddie replied, “Ben who?”
Then again, Curtis was a 26-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour. He only got into the British Open two weeks prior with a tie for 13th in the Western Open, his best finish of the year. He was No. 396 in the world ranking. And he was playing his first major.
By all accounts, that’s the very definition of a surprise.
A big surprise.
The harshest comment that week came from Davis Love III. He was frustrated like so many others by the goofy bounces at Royal St. George’s, and when Curtis was holding the claret jug, Love said, “The Open got exactly the champion it deserved.”
An unpredictable links, a winner no one imagined.
Curtis felt at times as though people expected an apology from him. The leaderboard featured an All-Star cast of contenders, from Vijay Singh to Tiger Woods, from Love to Kenny Perry. And the championship belonged to Thomas Bjorn until he took three shots to escape a greenside bunker on the 16th and squandered a two-shot lead on Sunday.
“It didn’t really bother me what other people thought,” he said. “I know what I did that week.”
He had the lowest score, which all that ever counts.
What makes Curtis stand out is that he was on the practice range, having finished well before the final group, when Bjorn made par on the last hole and Sutton leaned out of the scoring trailer next to the range and said, “Ben, you’re the Open champion.”
He was a surprise because no one really saw it coming until it was over.
Shaun Micheel was different. In the very next major, at Oak Hill for the PGA Championship, Micheel shot 68 in the second round to take the lead and he never lost it. Leading by one shot on the final hole, he hit 7-iron to within inches for a signature moment on an otherwise nondescript week.
It was his fifth season on the PGA Tour. He was No. 169 in the world. He had never won in 160 previous starts as a pro on tour, and he had only one finish in the top three, the previous year at the B.C. Open.
Was that a fluke? His golf sure didn’t look that way at Oak Hill, especially considering Micheel had to cope with being atop the leaderboard over the entire weekend on a difficult golf course.
He went three years without once getting into contention or finishing among the top three, a stretch of 83 tournaments that ended when he was runner-up at the PGA Championship, although he was never a factor at a major that Tiger Woods won by five shots.
The PGA Championship remains his only win, although Micheel has been slowed by health issues in recent years.
Just what is a surprise when it comes to majors?
“You could say I was a surprise,” Justin Leonard said.
Most wouldn’t agree with him. Leonard was so good in college that he won a U.S. Amateur and made it on tour without ever going to Q-school. He had already won twice on tour when he arrived at Royal Troon in 1997. But hear him out.
A dozen years later, it was a surprise when Leonard didn’t win the British Open. He was part of a three-way playoff with Jean Van de Velde and Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie, the major famous for Van de Velde’s comical collapse on the 72nd hold to make triple bogey, and Lawrie setting a record by coming from 10 shots behind on the last day to eventually win.
Lawrie, no doubt, would get plenty of votes in the category of shock winners.
Most players would define surprise as someone who had never won before, who had never seriously contended in a major, who had never played in a major or who did not look like he would win until he showed up at the trophy presentation.
John Daly was the ninth alternate in 1991 PGA, spared any talk of a fluke because of how far he hit the ball, and by winning at St. Andrews four years later. Louis Oosthuizen, the defending champion at this British Open, is loaded with talent and one of the sweetest swings. Even so, he had missed the cut in seven of his eight majors, and the lone exception was when he was dead last in a PGA. Then he won at St. Andrews by seven shots.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is one of the most celebrated wins by an American - Francis Ouimet, playing in his first major in 1913 at Brookline, across the street from his house, beating the great Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Even more stunning was in 1955 at Olympic Club, when Jack Fleck’s late heroics got him into a playoff with Ben Hogan and then beat him the next day in a playoff. And don’t forget Orville Moody, who’s only win came at the 1969 U.S. Open.
They all had one thing in common.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done,” David Duval said. “You had the best score of anyone else that week.”
Think someone like Colin Montgomerie wouldn’t love to be able to say that?