Curtis settles into new life as Open's unlikely champion

Royal St George's victor finds his card full after triumph but vows major win will not change him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ben Curtis, the last person anyone thought would be walking away from Royal St George's with the Claret Jug on Sunday evening after the biggest upset in the game for 90 years, was the first to arrive for the Open on the Saturday morning preceding the event.

The 26-year-old from Kent, Ohio registered with the Royal and Ancient, wondered if he could possibly play the course, asked about finding some accommodation, picked up a strokesaver, got some tips from the club professional about playing the course in different wind directions and then headed out for his first view of an Open links.

Along with Curtis were his fiancée, Candace Beatty, a former college golfer and Peter Dawson, the secretary of the R & A. "The three of us were the only people out there," Dawson recalled. "When we spoke, it was all about why we drive on the wrong side of the road and stuff like that, it was a terrific conversation.

"Little did I foresee," Dawson admitted, "that on the Sunday night he would be accepting the Claret Jug." Who did? Not even his father Bob, who now runs the Mill Creek club - set up by Ben's grandparents and where he learned the game. "There was no way in the world I thought he would get there," said Bob Curtis. "I thought he would compete, make the cut maybe, get some good rounds in and experience what goes on in a championship. But to win it? No way."

Yesterday evening Curtis was able to show his parents the ancient Open trophy to prove it really was true that the 396th ranked golfer in the world beat Tiger Woods and the best of the rest to win the first major he had played in. "I'm on top of the world," said the new Open champion before his departure from Heathrow. "It's great, shocking, unbelievable. People have been coming up to me and congratulating me."

Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Tony Lema all won the Open on their first visit to Britain and never having seen links golf before. But these were established players. Even though Jack Fleck beat Arnold Palmer in a play-off at the US Open in 1955, you have to go back to the 1913 US Open to find a similar scenario. Francis Ouimet, who lived across the road from the Country Club in Brookline, was an unknown amateur who beat the mighty Brits Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole play-off in his first major.

Since the world rankings began in 1986, only two players ranked outside the top 100 have won a major. John Daly (No 168) won the 1991 USPGA as the ninth alternate but went on to win the Open four years later. In 1999, Paul Lawrie (159) came from 10 shots adrift to win at Carnoustie but the Scot had won on the European Tour and has continued to do so.

Curtis had played in only 16 events at the highest level prior to the Open. From the start of the season, his first on the US Tour, he has jumped from 1,269th in the world to 35th. The £122,000 he had earned so far this season was dwarfed by his cheque for £700,000 for winning the Open.

"We are absolutely delighted that somebody could come out of the blue to win the championship," said David Pepper, chairman of the R & A championship committee. "The championship was an enormous success and the course was exactly what we hoped for, a fast-running links course. Ben took the time and trouble to play more practice rounds than anybody else and he managed to beat the best in the world."

It has become a cliché that to look along the practice range at any tournament is to see any number of golfers who appear to have the requisite skill to win. The margin between the world No 1 and the rest looked huge a year ago, now the gap between the best player in the world and the 396th appears tiny.

Curtis's victory, and the collapse of Thomas Bjorn and the failure of others like Woods to take control of the championship, made for a stunning afternoon. But it is refreshing to find such an uncomplicated champion, with a simple game he trusts - Greg Norman, the 1993 winner, spoke about how the course rewards only shots played in a positive manner - and no coach, no psychologist, no nutritionist, no physiotherapist.

What an earth will become of Curtis? "It will be fascinating to see how his career develops," said Dawson. "Let's hope he goes on to do great things. That was one hell of a gritty putt he holed at the 18th. He is a very nice young man and conducted himself very well."

Curtis's first problem will be the date of his wedding to Candace, which is set for the Saturday of the NEC World Invitational at the end of next month. The tournament will take place not far from Curtis's home but is only for the élite to which he now belongs. "Everything has been booked for six months," he said. "We're going to have to sit back and work it out. I've got to map out my schedule for the next year." That will now include such events as the HSBC World Match Play at Wentworth in October, where there is £1m for the winner, and the Grand Slam in Hawaii in December for the four major champions.

Bill Rogers, whose victory at St George's 22 years ago looks positively preordained compared to Curtis's upset, found himself plunged into a lifestyle he was not comfortable with and soon quite the professional game. Who knows how Curtis will be able to adjust but rumours of him being whisked off to celebrate at the five-star Eastwell Manor, near Ashford, where Pierce Brosnan stayed while filming scenes for Die Another Day, proved false. He merely returned to his bed and breakfast in Wingham and did not even visit any of the village's several pubs.

"We just had some pizza and talked and reflected on the day," Curtis said. "We talked a bit with Linda and Gordon who owned the house but it wasn't a major party. I had one glass of champagne. I'm not a big drinker. I know I have gone to a new level now but I'll still be the Ben Curtis I've always been."