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Long-awaited return

Ben Curtis' 2003 victory at Royal St. George's ranks as one of the Open's biggest upsets, but it won't be such a shock if he wins again. Curtis has developed a real love of links golf, says Helen Ross, and he's thrilled to be back.

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Ben Curtis' return to Royal St. George's in May was a trip down memory lane, but he is all business as his title defense nears. (Getty Images)

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

He's only seen the tape of the final round once since 2003. Well, he actually just watched the final three holes.

But Ben Curtis does have a very large photograph of the gigantic yellow leaderboard beside the grandstands on the 18th hole at Royal St. George's hanging on the wall in the basement of his Stow, Ohio, home. The one with his name at the top after 72 holes of the 2003 Open Championship.

Those reminders are enough for now. Once his two children are old enough to appreciate what their dad accomplished that magical week in a tiny town called Sandwich on the southern coast of England, Curtis will get the VCR back out and watch the entire final round with them.

"They're four and three now, so I've got to wait a couple more years to where they'll really remember it," he said with a shy grin.

Golf fans remember, though.

Curtis' victory -- which came in his maiden major championship -- was one of the game's stunning upsets. Ranked 369th in the world, he was a 300-1 longshot at the start of the week. Curtis quickly found his comfort zone, though. He started the final round tied for third, birdied six of his first 11 holes and closed with a 69 to finish one stroke ahead of Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn.

The last player to win his first-ever major championship prior to Curtis' amazing win? Well, that would be none other than the legendary Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open.

Curtis returned to Royal St. George's in May for just the second time since his signature victory. He did a slate of media interviews and played some of the course, which he found firm, fast and nearly devoid of rough after eight weeks without rain. 

"There's nothing," Curtis said. "There's grass there, but it's very hard and firm. Where Tiger hit his ball on 1 (lost it and made triple bogey on Thursday in 2003), he'd be flipping a wedge on the green from there today. Hopefully, they'll get some rain and there will be some rough."

The May visit was a trip down memory lane. The unassuming Kent State product and his wife Candace, who was his fiancee at the time, had arrived in Sandwich early and they spent the weekend before the Open began trying to learn the nuances of links golf.

"When I first got there I had no idea where to go," Curtis said. "Even when I was up there last week, it's hard to tell where the first fairway is. (Candace and I) went out on the weekend before and she walked ahead (and said) to hit over (her) head and I'd see the fairway. That's kind of how I got through the week.

"It was very different and unique. I don't know if it was the color or the tightness of the fairways that appealed to me, but it was something that once I got the lines off the tee I felt a little more comfortable."

On that life-changing Sunday, Curtis remembers being extraordinarily focused. His birdie binge over the first 11 holes gave him a two-stroke advantage on Bjorn and a three-shot edge on Singh. But he bogeyed Nos. 12, 14, 15 and 17 and went to the 18th hole trailing Bjorn by three. The Dane played the final four holes in 4 over, though, and Curtis had the win.

"The more and more I think about it, the first 11 holes was kind of a trance because the night before, my fiancée at the time, she asked how I felt about Sunday about my chances, and I told her I was going to win, and she got real quiet," Curtis said. "Didn't talk to me until Sunday when we got finished. It was one of those that I was so focused on hitting the first fairway that I forgot about everything else I was playing for, and then I kind of realized that on the 12th tee. That's kind of when I woke up and said, 'Hey, you can win this tournament.' You can never do that. That's where all the mistakes started coming into play.

"I knew it was a tough finish, as well, and it was. ... But looking back, my whole goal there was just to have fun and play all four days, and to be holding the Claret Jug at the end of it. I guess it's a fairy tale in a sense, but to be part of it is something unique. I'll never forget what happened, that's for sure."

The win might have come out of the blue, but it wasn't a fluke. Curtis has gone on to win two other PGA TOUR events. Interestingly, though, he never got to defend either one since his 2006 victories at the Booz Allen Classic and 84 LUMBER Classic came in the final year of the event. So this week marks the first time Curtis will return to compete at a course where he won.

"I love playing links golf," Curtis said. "It doesn't matter what course you put me on, I always have a good time. Yeah, to go back to where I won is going to be fun and something new. I didn't get the chance in '07 when I won to go back to where I won, so I actually get to defend in some way or another. I get to defend a golf tournament, so it's something unique and fun."

Curtis, who comes to Sandwich looking for his first top-10 of the season just as he did in 2003, is bringing 14 members of his extended family with him to England this week. They'll stay in the same place he and Candace did the year he won -- with an upgrade.

"It's a big farmhouse, and we stayed in the barn that had cottages," Curtis said. "We actually rented the whole house this time. There's a lot of people coming, so it's going to be a little bit different. Last time it was just Candace and I. It's going to be a bit different. But in a sense it's going to be the same. So hopefully we try to keep it as normal as possible."