An Unknown No More

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) -- The phone calls started pouring into his Arkansas home not long after a 500-1 long shot named Ben Curtis won the British Open.
 
Jack Fleck understood the reason for the sudden attention.
 
He pulled off a shocker of his own in the 1955 U.S. Open, making two birdies on the final four holes at The Olympic Club to tie the great Ben Hogan, then beating him the next day in a playoff for his first professional victory.
 
Jack Fleck, meet Ben Curtis.
 
'He came out of nowhere to win. I came out of nowhere to win,' said Fleck, his voice vibrant and his memory clear at age 81. 'The only difference is, he didn't play Tiger Woods in an 18-hole playoff.'
 
But just like Fleck, no one gave the 26-year-old Curtis a chance at Royal St. George's.
 
A rookie playing in his first major, he outplayed Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III, Sergio Garcia and Kenny Perry, and posted his 69 about the time Thomas Bjorn self-destructed in a pot bunker.
 
He became the first player since Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open to win a major in his first try.
 
'Sometimes innocence is bliss,' Woods said. 'He didn't really understand the whole situation. He was just going out there playing, nothing to lose, and he had everything to gain. Sometimes that's a lethal combination.
 
'I think it's a fantastic story.'
 
There are plenty just like it in golf history.
 
Curtis and Fleck are among a collection of improbable winners in the majors, a list that runs from Ouimet to Sam Parks Jr. in the 1935 U.S. Open, from John Daly in the '91 PGA Championship to Rich Beem last year at Hazeltine.
 
Surprising winners, yes.
 
But a fluke?
 
Fleck still bristles at the notion.
 
'I didn't really appreciate hearing that at the time,' he said.
 
The 1955 U.S. Open was Fleck's only victory in the 1950s. Still, he went on to win the Phoenix Open and Bakersfield Open, lost two other PGA Tour events in a playoff and tied for third behind Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the 1960 U.S. Open.
 
'I thought I should have won more than I did,' Fleck said.
 
Ouimet went on to greater things. He won two U.S. Amateur titles -- at the time considered majors -- played on nine consecutive Walker Cup teams and was the first American to be captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club.
 
The 1979 Masters was the second victory for Fuzzy Zoeller, and he was the first player in the modern era to win at Augusta National in his first appearance. He later won a U.S. Open and seven other titles in a successful career.
 
Jeff Sluman made his first victory the 1988 PGA Championship, and has won five more times and earned more than $12 million in a steady career.
 
For others, it's too early to tell.
 
Daly, who captivated golf with his behemoth tee shots at Crooked Stick, has four PGA Tour victories. Two of them are majors -- he followed up his '91 PGA by winning at hallowed St. Andrews in the 1995 British Open.
 
'To see my name on two major trophies probably makes up for not winning 17 times,' Daly once said.
 
Beem was only surprising because of his pedigree.
 
He wasn't a junior golf prodigy like Phil Mickelson or David Duval. Beem once worked as an assistant pro, walked off the Dakotas Tour to sell car stereos in Seattle, then finally returned to the tour. He had won twice -- including his previous start at the International -- before holding off Woods to win the PGA Championship.

Beem hasn't won since then, and his career on the course might be like Daly's. Both are streaky, and unstoppable when the stars are aligned.
 
'A lot of people call my win a fluke,' Beem said. 'I'm going to give you the honest answer, because I've been thinking about it for a while. Yes, my career has been a fluke. It would be like a guy who works at a printing press for a couple of years, and about five years later he writes a Pulitzer prize-winning novel.
 
'I've gone from making $15,000 as a very bad assistant golf professional to winning the ultimate,' he said. 'I'm very streaky, but when I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm not playing so well, I'm just as bad as everybody else.'
 
Where does that leave Curtis?
 
He was a three-time Ohio Amateur champion, winning one year by 17 strokes, and he reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach in 1999. Golfweek magazine ranked him No. 1 among amateurs before he turned pro.
 
Unknown, yes, but not without talent.
 
'I figured once I got there, I had the game for this level,' Curtis said. 'It was just a matter of time.'
 
In some respects, the pressure is off. He has a major (unlike Mickelson or Sergio Garcia), and his PGA Tour card is locked up for the next five years.
 
Then again, expectations are higher than ever for the British Open champion.
 
They will start this week at Oak Hill, Curtis' second major but first as a major champion. Expectations probably will follow him the rest of his career.
 
Fluke?
 
Or star in the making?
 
'I want to go out and prove to everybody that I belong out here, and that the win was no fluke,' Curtis said. 'Time will tell. It should not just be based on this week or the next few weeks. It should be based on between now and next summer. I'm going to take it one day at a time and try to keep getting better.'
 
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