Big Ben Captures Claret Jug

By Mercer BaggsJuly 20, 2003, 4:00 pm
SANDWICH, England -- Ben Curtis stood on the 18th green Sunday, lining up an eight-foot par attempt, trying to stay focused on the most important putt of his life ' and trying not to think about everything he might have thrown away.
Then came a massive groan from behind him. And then another.
At that point, he knew he had to stay committed to the present. Make his putt. And possibly become the 132nd Open champion.
He did. And he did.
Curtis posted a 2-under 69 to finish regulation at 1-under-par 283, and then awaited his fate. He had bogeyed four of his final seven holes, but a brutal blunder by Thomas Bjorn allowed him the opportunity to earn his first major victory ' in his first major championship.
'Oh, man, that's about all I can say now,' said an overwhelmed Curtis, who is believed to be the first player to win a major in his debut since Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open. 'I just can't describe how I feel right now.'
Bjorn was leading the tournament by two strokes, at 3-under, when he hit his tee shot on the par-3 16th into the right greenside bunker. His first attempt out landed on the green, just short of the halfway point between the hazard and the hole, but rolled gently back into the sand. His second attempt did the same.
The Danes double bogey completely wiped out the past.
Curtis string of dropped shots, Davis Love IIIs terrible start, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singhs days of inconsistency ' all rendered meaningless.
Woods and Singh were the first to try and catch Curtis. They both had squandered several opportunities throughout the round, but they, too, were still alive.
Both were at even par with two holes to play. Woods, however, came up short of the green on his approach shot to the par-4 17th. His chip ran seven feet past, from where he missed the par save. That put him two behind. Needing an eagle on the par-4 finishing hole, he had to settle for par when his tee shot landed in the right rough.
Woods shot even-par 71 to finish at 1-over 285. He has still never won a major when trailing after 54 holes.
Singh, who was paired with Woods, saved par at 17 to give himself a chance. But he also pulled his tee shot at the last and made par for a round of 70 and an even-par finish.
Then there were Bjorn and Love ' the final twosome.
After bogeying three of his first four holes, Love battled back to even par, only to miss a birdie at 16, and bogey 17. His 72 put him into a tie for fourth with Woods at 1-over.
'I got myself so far behind I didn't have a chance,' Love said. 'If I'd hit a few more good shots I would have won.'
That left it up to Bjorn. The man who had the claret jug in his hands, but buried it in the sand.
Thursday, Bjorn made a quadruple bogey on the 17th hole. He was penalized two strokes after swiping at the sand when he failed to get his shot out of the bunker.
Sunday, the penalty was far more severe. Prior to his gaffe at 16, Bjorn had found a fairway bunker at the par-4 15th and made bogey to fall back to 3-under.
'All of a sudden, I let a three-shot lead go ' and then 16,' said Bjorn, who shot 72.
After falling back into a tie with Curtis, at 1-under, Bjorn missed a 12-foot putt at 17 to drop to even par. He had one last gasp at 18, but he came up short. First, his approach shot came up short of the green. Then his potential playoff-inducing chip came up 18 inches short of the hole.
And just like that, an entertainingly wild week off the southeast coast of England came to a conclusion ' with the most improbable major champion since John Daly in the 1991 PGA Championship.
Maybe it was fate. Curtis hired local caddie Andrew Sutton for the week. Sutton used to work for Andrew Coltart, who was born May 12, 1970 ' the same birthdate as Masters winner Mike Weir and U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk.
The stars shone so brightly off the 132nd Open Championship leaderboard Saturday evening that you might have missed Curtis name in the glare.
'That's probably where Ben sneaked in. Everyone was talking about Tiger, Love and Bjorn. Ben just played his round and got away with it,' said Singh.
It was no surprise to see an American on top of the big yellow board ' they had won six of the last eight prior to this year, but Curtis?
The former two-time Ohio state amateur champion qualified for a trip to Royal St. Georges based solely on his performance (T13) at the Western Open, where the top eight finishers not otherwise exempt into the seasons third major were offered an invitation. He entered this week 396th on the Official World Golf Ranking.
'I told my wife yesterday, 'This guy can play. He's no pushover,'' relayed Singh, who played with Curtis at the Western.
The rest of the world began to take notice Sunday when the 26-year-old PGA Tour rookie stood alone in first place following a birdie at the par-5 fourth that lifted him to 1-under.
Players far more established than Curtis were unable to match his moxie Sunday.
Kenny Perry shot 73 to end at 3-over-par 287. Nick Faldo tried valiantly to atone for his Sandwich defeat a decade ago. He eagled the par-5 seventh ' to an explosive crowd response ' to get to 1-over. And made it to even par with a birdie at the par-5 14th. But bogeys at 15, 16 and 17 finished him at 3-over, as well. Sergio Garcia struggled to a 74 for a 4-over total.
What had started out as a wide-open opportunity for most anyone to win the Open was reduced to only a handful on contenders by the back nine.
Curtis, who started at 1-over, birdied Nos. 1, 4, 7 and 9 to make the turn in 4-under 32. He then climbed to 4-under for the tournament with another birdie, from 15 feet, at the par-4 10th.
The momentum carried through to a sixth birdie on the day at the par-3 11th, but it died quickly thereafter with a bogey at 12.
He butchered the par-5 14th, when he crisscrossed the fairway on his way to a bogey-6. Curtis piped his tee shot down the center at the par-4 15th, but then badly pulled his approach shot left of the green and made his second consecutive bogey. He added another square to his card by three-putting from off the green at 17.
Woods and Singh, playing alongside one another, were up and down all day. Singh got to 3-under before dropping back to even par.
'It was sad actually, because I thought I was playing really well,' said Singh. 'Coming down the stretch, you can't make any bogeys.'
Woods, similarly, got to 2-under, but spent most of the day just trying to stay out of the black.
'It's going to work out for somebody. You've got to have things go your way in order to win,' said Woods, who is now winless in his last five majors. 'And this week I got my share of good break, and also got my share of really bad ones, too.'
Through it all, it was Bjorns tournament to win ' or lose. He started the day with just his third bogey of the week, but by the time he made the turn he had picked up three shots to get to 3-under.
A birdie at the par-5 14th lifted him to minus-4. Then he bogeyed 15, and doubled 16, which wiped everyones slate clean ' and effectively put Curtis into the championship category of Daly, Ouimet, 1969 U.S. Open champion Orville Moody, a former drill sergeant, and Jack Fleck, who defeated Ben Hogan in a playoff in the 1955 U.S. Open.
'I'm in great company,' said Curtis. 'Right now many people are probably saying, 'Well, he doesn't really belong there,' but I know I do. So that's all that matters.'
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