British Open Champ to Join European Tour

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Ben Curtis is full of surprises.
 
First, he stunned the golf world by winning the British Open in his first major. Ranked 396th in the world, he beat an intimidating collection of stars, including Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh.
 
A month later, Curtis refused to let a $6 million World Golf Championship get in the way of his wedding, so he got married between the third and final rounds.
 
Next up for Curtis might be the most unusual step of all: The 26-year-old from Ohio is joining the European tour.
 
'Why?' Tiger Woods wondered when told of the decision.
 
Curtis can expect that kind of reaction.
 
Winning the British Open put a silver claret jug in his trophy case, $1.1 million in the bank and a five-year PGA Tour exemption in his pocket.
 
That means he can play his choice of $5 million tournaments on perfectly manicured courses, with the best practice facilities, and compete against the best players in the world.
 
Why play anywhere else?
 
'I just feel like it's something I should do as the Open champion,' Curtis said. 'It's such a worldwide event, not to say the other ones aren't. But this is more of one because of the history. I have a right to travel around and play in other parts of the world.'
 
For most guys in his position, that PGA Tour exemption is the best perk that comes with winning a major.
 
But the triumph at Royal St. George's opened Curtis' eyes to a world Curtis never really knew existed.
 
He went to Monte Carlo for a brief honeymoon in September before playing at the Lancome Trophy in France, and a month later he returned to England for the World Match Play Championship. Hearing himself introduced as the Open champion - and the ovations he received - gave him a sense of obligation.
 
That's when he sat down with his agent, Peter Malik, and tossed out the idea of holding dual memberships on the PGA and European tours.
 
'It surprised me that he was thinking about it,' Malik said. 'He said, 'What would be the consequences of joining the European tour? Is that something I could do?' He feels the responsibility of an Open champion is supporting that tour.'
 
Curtis is not abandoning the PGA Tour; he still plans to play 18-20 events.
 
Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia are among those who are members of both tours, although the list contains precious few Americans - John Daly last year, and now Curtis.
 
Sometimes, Americans take up European tour membership when their game's not yet good enough for the PGA Tour. Bob May, Gary Nicklaus and Glen Day are among those who started in Europe.
 
But rarely does a guy who's exempt for five years even bother with anything but the PGA Tour.
 
'I think it's fantastic,' Clarke said. 'I think it will be good for his game. All you've got to do is look at Tiger. He plays around the world - Ernie, too. Europe has a lot to offer.'
 
British Open champions receive a 10-year exemption on the European tour, where membership requires $160 in dues and a minimum of 11 tournaments. The four majors and World Golf Championships count toward that number (Curtis is exempt only for the Accenture Match Play Championship).
 
It sounds as if Curtis will see more of Els than Woods the first part of the year.
 
He will start his season with two PGA Tour events in Hawaii, then head to Thailand for the Johnnie Walker Classic. Another tournament in Australia or South Africa is a possibility.
 
He probably will play six or seven regular European tour events, bunching them together to limit the number of flights over the ocean.
 
It might not make sense to most people, but it does to Curtis.
 
He is newly married with no children, an opportune time to see the world with his wife, Candace. He also believes it will help his game, not only testing himself under a variety of conditions, but perhaps getting into contention more often against fields that aren't nearly as strong top-to-bottom as they are in the United States.
 
Plus, he's treated like a major champion overseas, and not a one-hit wonder that some suspect he is.
 
'He doesn't get the respect he deserves,' Clarke said. 'He's the Open champion.'
 
Still, it's a decision that will raise eyebrows.
 
Global travel, especially coming off a major championship, smacks of appearance money.
 
That isn't the case with Curtis.
 
While his European schedule has not been released, three of the tournaments on his itinerary don't pay for playing. And even those that do won't be giving him anywhere near what Els or Garcia might command.
 
Including the British Open, Woods has scheduled at least three overseas trips each year since 1997. While he was curious about Curtis' decision, he believes it will make him a better player.
 
'You have to deal with different weather conditions, grasses, different environments,' Woods said. 'I love playing around the world. You learn so much about yourself and your game.'