By John Hopkins, The London Times
It would be a very dull soul indeed who was not moved by the events in the Open at Royal St. George's. If you wanted to write a script for a golf film, a Tin Cup for a new millennium, then you could do no better than chronicle the events that occurred in one dizzy spell of ten days on the south coast of England. Nothing could exceed the excitement, the drama, the sheer improbability of what Ben Curtis did in the Open.
Such a script would tell how a confident but unsophisticated American of 26 first had to qualify for the penultimate major championship of the year, the Open, and how he did this by finishing 13th in the Western Open in Chicago. It would detail how he then swept up his fiancee Candace and the two of them set out on an adventure that would have an ending that would surely be beyond their wildest dreams. It would relate how the pair would travel from Kent, Ohio, to Kent, England, and walked the first few holes of Royal St. George's on their first visit to that club in the company of the secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club who explained to them why Britons drive on the left and other such important differences. It would explain how Curtis had to overcome odds that were rated at 750-1 by British bookmakers, how he was ranked 396th in the world, had to travel to a country he had never visited before, to compete on a course with which he was unfamiliar, whose characteristics were foreign to him, and compete against older, more experienced golfers such as Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III, all winners of major championships. The film would end with Curtis holding up the claret jug at a sunlit Royal St. George's, which might seem wildly improbable were it not for the fact that that is just what Curtis did when he became the most improbable Open Champion for 100 years as well as the first man to win the Open at his first attempt since Tom Watson at Carnoustie in 1975. Curtis is in his first season on the PGA Tour and before this event his winnings for the year had amounted to $200,000. It was his 16th event as a professional. John Daly's victory in the 1991 PGA Champion-ship was unexpected but nothing so surprising as the display by Curtis, who was the only man in the field to break par. Not since Francis Ouimet, the American amateur, defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the leading professionals in the world, to stun all golf by winning the 1913 US Open at Brookline in a playoff has a major championship been claimed by such an unlikely winner.
"This is the grandest tournament of all," said Curtis, who began with two rounds of 72, improved to a 70 on Saturday and finished with a 69 to finish one stroke ahead of Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn. "I am very fortunate to be a winner of it. Look at all the great names in the game on it - Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer. I am very fortunate to have done it." To understand the significance of Curtis's win it is necessary to understand the significance of the Open. The Open is more than a golf tournament. It is a key date in the social calendar in Britain, an important part of the social fabric of a country known for the importance of its social fabric. The Open is accorded as much attention and prestige as the Lord's Test match for cricket, Wimbledon for tennis, Royal Ascot for horse racing and Henley, the world-famous rowing regatta. People in England who would not normally know the difference between Tiger Woods and Belton Woods find themselves having to pay attention to the Open because everyone else is.
The importance and significance of the Open becomes even more noticeable and even more a part of the social scene when it is held at Royal St. George's, 50 miles south of London, the most southerly venue on the Open rota and the only one in the south of England.
But there is something else that marks out Royal St. George's from Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon for example. The clubhouse snuggles down against the winds, a warm and welcoming place structure that reeks of history. It has sweeping lawns in front of it. But the moment you reach the 1st tee and contemplate the test ahead of you, there is a feeling of awe, intimidation even. The Old Course at St. Andrews gives you history, centuries of it. Royal Lytham & St. Anne's offers bunkers, 198 of them, and some of them must be avoided at all costs. At Royal Birkdale some of the course's defenses are its sandhills. On the short 12th for example, you tee off from between two towering sand dunes to a green protected by another. The distinguishing characteristics of Royal St. George's are a little of all these. It is rightly considered to be a course for champions. Most of the 12 previous winners of the Open had been at the top of their form. When Harry Vardon won here in 1899, it was his third Open, just as when Greg Norman triumphed on a tumultuous day in 1993 he had been among the world's best for nearly one decade.
Thus it was that on the eve of the 132nd Open the feeling was that whoever would clasp their hands around the claret jug on Sunday evening would be a worthy champion. The contenders fell into two categories: First there were the major champions such as Ernie Els, the defending champion; Vijay Singh; Tiger Woods; Davis Love III; Mike Weir the Masters Champion, and Jim Furyk, the new U.S. Open Champion. Then there were those who were ready to step up to that level as Sandy Lyle had when he won at Royal St. George's in 1985 and Bill Rogers four years earlier. Prime contenders in this category included Kenny Perry, arguably one of the most successful golfers in the world on the eve of the Open, Sergio Garcia competing in his 19th major championship or Padraig Harrington and his fellow Irishman Darren Clarke. Then there were the others. Curtis did not feature in these or any other. He was too much of an outsider to be ranked an outsider.
There were similarities between Sandwich 2003 and an Open 26 years earlier. The previous Sunday Els had won the Scottish Open by five strokes just as Woods had won the Western Open by five strokes 11 days before the start of the Open. These two men, their games primed, would surely make it a shoot-out at Royal St. George's so that the four days of the Championship would resound to the sights and sounds of an epic confrontation worthy of such a demanding links course. A confrontation like this had happened 26 years earlier at Turnberry when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were seemingly locked together for the last two rounds before Watson squeaked home by one stroke. Their struggle was so intense they pulled clear of the rest of the field. Nicklaus finished ten strokes ahead of Hubert Green in third place.
For three days at Sandwich, Curtis's name was hardly mentioned. The first round was dominated by the sight of Woods hitting his opening drive into thick rough to the right of the first fairway and losing the ball, and of Els playing poorly as well. The third round was notable for the disqualification of Mark Roe and Jesper Parnevik for signing the wrong scorecards. Roe, who had gone round in 67, signed for an 81. Even on Sunday morning, when Curtis lay only two strokes off the pace, no one gave him a second glance. All eyes were on Davis Love III, one stroke behind Thomas Bjorn, the leader, on Singh and Woods, who were two strokes behind, and Perry and Garcia who were also two strokes behind. All eyes, that is until Curtis went to the turn in 32, birdied the 10th and 11th and stood on the 12th tee with a two-stroke lead in the Open. Dropped shots on the 12th, 14th, 15th and 17th took him back to 1-under-par, a total that looked likely to be matched and so he went to the practice ground to hit some shots and retain the feel in his hands.
But one by one his closest rivals failed. Singh nearly holed a bunker shot on the 18th that would have got him into a playoff with Curtis. "Ben's no pushover," Singh said. "He's got a good short game, he is a great putter and he keeps the ball in play." Woods failed by two strokes to catch his countryman. "Man, I hit some good shots," Woods said. Love rallied to get close to Curtis but not close enough.
Bjorn was the player who had the best chance to deny Curtis. On Thursday the Dane was penalized two strokes on the 17th hole for dropping his club in the sand, and when he finished one stroke behind Curtis he could rue not so much the shots he had been penalized three days earlier but the way he leaked four strokes over three holes on Sunday, starting at the 15th. It was the short 16th that it did for Bjorn. Denmark may have a Prince but it would not have an Open Champion. Bjorn's tee shot ended in a bunker just to the right of the flagstick, which was positioned no more than 20 feet from the right edge of a wide green. Bjorn's first attempt to escape rolled back to his feet. So did his second. Bjorn took a huge heave at his third, the ball rolled to five feet and he rapped this in with courage. But however he looked, he felt rattled. He missed a five-foot putt for par on the 17th and failed to hole his chip on the 18th to tie. "I stood on the 15th tee and had one hand on the trophy" Bjorn said.
"I am disappointed but not too disappointed. I have come a long way in three or four weeks. It is going to be hard to get up and go to the next tournament but I will just have to do it." And so it was Curtis who received the ancient trophy and who had his name announced as "the champion golfer for 2003" at the prizegiving ceremony. A rank outsider had triumphed in an Open that will not be forgotten for years.
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|Charles Howell III||71-76-77-74-298|
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