Curtis adds new link to the Ohio connection

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The Independent Online

Even the Americans were looking at each other quizzically. "Hey, who the hell is this guy?" was the general consensus. "Ben Curtis, Ben Curtis, Ben Curtis..." they muttered to themselves, trying to summon something, anything, from the mass of detail that clogs a golf writer's mind.

But nothing was forthcoming. Indeed, even their anorak-in-chief, a man called Doug, knew nothing beyond the bare facts about Curtis. "If Doug doesn't know," one of the group said, shaking his head, "then Ben Curtis just does not exist.'

Well, they all know who he is now. Not that they should have been embarrassed by their ignorance of a golfer who must surely rank as the most unlikely winner in Open history. Compared to "Ben Curtis - Open champion", Foinavon was Shergar, Wimbledon were Manchester United and Rocky Balboa was Muhammad Ali.

Because nothing in Curtis's short career as a professional had marked him down as one to note here this week, never mind one to reopen the record books for. The 26-year-old is a rookie on the US Tour having come through the renowned Q-School as the 26th of the 38 lucky ones last winter. His best placing on his first year up with the big boys was tied for 14th at the Western Open a fortnight ago, his first top-25 finish and one that earned him his berth in his first major at Sandwich.

Otherwise, he has made eight cuts in 13 tournaments. His progress - though lucrative, netting him almost $200,000 - has been at the best steady. But then, when Curtis embarked on his maiden season in January, his sights were set merely on survival rather than immortality. "This first year I just want to make the top 125 and keep my tour card, that's all," he told his local newspaper in Ohio. "Right now, I'm trying to keep everything low profile and just keep doing everything I've done before, which is to just go practise and work on my game. I'm determined not to put myself through the mill and do anything to hurt my body."

Last night, Curtis would have been forgiven for doing a lot of things that would have hurt his body. Not too severely, though, the world will hope, because he will soon discover that everyone will want a piece of it now.

It is a long way back to find the seeds of the Open's newest folklore. Born in Ostrander, Ohio the young Ben would have been told about a legend of the game who was raised in nearby Columbus. The name Jack Nicklaus would have played a big part in his childhood, especially as his family were steeped in golf. Fifty yards from his house stood the practice putting green of Millcreek Golf Club, which just happened to have been built by his grandfather.

His father is still the superintendent of this public course and it would have raised few eyebrows when Curtis was handed his first club as a three-year-old. "Everything was right there at my fingertips," he admitted back in January. "There was everything I ever needed. And I could play almost any time."

It was not until high school, however, that Curtis took up the game seriously. But when the time came to pick which college to attend - ironically, he was to choose Kent State University - they were queuing up around the doglegs to sign him on golf scholarships.

Victories in two American Junior Golf Association tournaments had made all the right noises in all the right circles. At Kent, he was a three-time All-American and set the record for the best stroke-average in a single season. His destiny as a professional was firmly inked in as the titles became more plentiful and more prestigious.

In 2000, he won the Ohio Amateur by an unprecedented 17 strokes, joining Arnold Palmer and John Cook as the tournament's only back-to-back winners. That same year, Curtis finished runner-up at the Western Amateur and won the Player's Amateur to become world No 1 in the non-paid rankings. It was after he failed to win the 2000 US Amateur Championship, as an overwhelming favourite, that he decided to twist his cards and go professional.

He headed to the dreaded Q-School with his confidence high of making an immediate impression, but although he made the final stage, he found that the bar had been raised way above his expectations. Curtis retreated to make it the hard way. He joined the Hooters Pro-Golf Tour, which is not even the second rung in the American professional's ladder - imagine a golfing Ryman's League - but he even struggled there. Another failed trip to the Q-School in 2001 boded ominously, but Curtis returned to the Hooters for one more blast and this time around found the competition more in his range. His first meaningful professional triumph followed last year and he finished the season in fifth place on the Hooters Order of Merit.

That took him to last year's Q-School and at last, despite "playing poorly", Curtis won promotion to golf's Premier League. The Western Open awaited and qualification for Royal St George's and there... well that is already history.

The immediate future for Curtis holds a wedding next month to his long-term partner, Candace, and the couple will set up home in that other Kent that now has a special resonance.

When they get back there later this week, there is likely to be a mountain of mail awaiting. Two years ago, when Curtis won his second Ohio Amateur, a letter arrived from one Arnold Palmer Esq that read: "Welcome to the club." There should be a similar correspondence currently winging its way from the great man. This time, however, it should at least be a telegram.

BEN CURTIS: FACT FILE

1977: Born 26 May, Ostrander, Ohio, US

1999: Semi-finalist at the 1999 US Amateur competition.

2000: Wins Ohio Amateur championship with a 15-stroke victory. Wins the 2000 US Amateur World Team competition in Germany.

Ranked world's No 1 amateur by Golfweek magazine. Turns professional.

2001: Plays the Hooters tour. Wins the Myrtle Beach event and finishes 10th on the money list.

2002: Finishes joint 26th in the Qualifying Tournament to win his place on the PGA Tour.

2003: Joins USPGA Tour.

16 February: Makes debut in Buick Invitational but fails to make the cut with a three-over-par total for the first two days.

March: Makes his first cut on the USPGA Tour at the Bay Hill Invitational, finishing one over par and joint 42nd, earning his first pay cheque of the year of $14,130 (£8,872).

21 May: Finishes the EDS Byron Nelson Championship at one under par, in joint 44th place to win $16,184 (£10,100) and makes it five successive tournaments in which he made the cut.

7 June: Finishes joint 13th in the Western Open, earning himself his biggest pay-day to date with $79,500 (£50,000) to take his earnings for the year to $195,689 (£123,000). Also earns him qualification for the Open.

20 July: Wins the Open championship on his debut in the event with an overall total of one under, having earlier been three shots ahead with four holes to play.

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