Champion returns to defy doubters

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The Independent Online

He strolled through Royal Troon with his head down. Up ahead, John Daly was being mobbed by schoolchildren thrusting their autograph books under his nose, coming perilously close to the Rothmans that hung from his mouth. But when Ben Curtis came into eyesight? Nothing, not even the barest of whimpers.

He strolled through Royal Troon with his head down. Up ahead, John Daly was being mobbed by schoolchildren thrusting their autograph books under his nose, coming perilously close to the Rothmans that hung from his mouth. But when Ben Curtis came into eyesight? Nothing, not even the barest of whimpers.

It was tempting to shout "Oi you lot, this is the Open champion", although it didn't seem apt. For some reason Curtis suits the shadows he so sensationally burst out of at Sandwich last year. Golfers who dream of walking that final fairway to glory themselves might have him burnt in their consciousness, but to the star-crazed public that swooped on Ayrshire yesterday, Curtis was not on their radar.

So, too, in the bookmakers where the betting public were dealing in formlines far more substantive than fame. The name Ben Curtis is well down the list, somewhere near the skirting boards. The reigning champion is 200-1 to repeat the trick that many, unfairly, have obviously dismissed as a fluke. Even Foinavon was afforded the respect of having a few quid put on his back when he shouldered the title of reigning Grand National winner. But not Curtis.

Not that he worries about being the underdog. He revealed yesterday that an early career showing pigs at Ohio fairs was blighted when his brother out-hogged him. "He had an Open-champion of a pig," he said. "He won the grand champion. But my pigs were never that good." Curtis was to earn his bacon down a different route, one that has taken the 27-year-old all over the world in a year of living famously and which today pitches him up in Troon with so much more than a piece of silverware to defend.

Twelve months of failing to scale the dizzying heights again means that credibility is not yet on Curtis's mantelpiece and he is aware that the headline chasers will be sharpening their knives in readiness for any hint of a capitulation today. From claret jug to Open mug, they will scream without mercy.

"There's obviously going to be a lot more eyes on me this year," he said. "But I'm going to go out and have fun and just enjoy the whole experience. You don't get to defend your title too much, especially in a major." Nor will he be out there partnering Nick Faldo and Jean-François Remesy simply trying to avoid the big numbers. Whatever the odds-compilers think, Curtis is certain that this unique test of golf suits a game that some forget took him to become the world's No 1 amateur.

"You've got to look at me as the defending champion and not just a second-year tour pro playing in his fifth major," he said. "Because I love links golf. Coming here brings back a lot of memories and I feel really comfortable on this course. I'm starting to drive the ball better and I think you've got to say that anybody who is defending their title is a threat. No matter what anyone says last year's victory enhanced my golf game. It gives me an extra incentive that I can go out and do it again."

Last year he was first at Sandwich on the previous Saturday, this time he arrived, like the majority, on Sunday. "Last year was different," he said. "I had to learn how to play links golf pretty quickly."

He did it quicker than anyone, including himself, could expect. If the golfing gods have any soul the fall of an Open champion will not be so rapid.

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