From the pinnacle of success to a deep black hole, beware the curse of the Open

Why has the claret jug proved a poisoned chalice for so many winners? Jamie Corrigan investigates at St Andrews

You are now the Open champion, the legend tells you, sip at the claret jug and taste the elixir of pure golfing bliss, and take that giant leap on to the ultimate stepping stone to success, to numerous majors, to Tour title after Tour title, to the nirvana of competitive fulfilment ... yeah, right.

Try telling that to Young Tom Morris, the game's original No 1, who won four consecutive jugs at the turn of the 1870s and had so much fulfilment from the experience that he dropped down dead three years later, as a broken-hearted 24-year-old with a burst artery.

A one-off? Well, what of his successor, Tom Kidd, who managed to live to the grand old age of 35, 11 short years after lifting the damn thing? In fact, ignore the story of Tony Lema, if you must - Mr Champagne himself, who died in a plane crash two years after he popped the corks in 1964 - but then go to ask the last 10 champions whether they suspect that there might indeed be an Open curse. Of these, only Tiger Woods would look at you blankly as only Tiger Woods has gone on to win another major after the Open. (But then, there are witches in Eastwick without potions strong enough to curse that superhuman).

Imagine, say, the last 10 champions of Wimbledon never winning another Grand Slam. There is evidence enough in golf's own record books, though, without needing to go running to other sports for a contrast. The list of Augusta winners shows that of the last 10 green jacketeers, four have found further glory in at least another of the majors (which does not sound that many until you remember that Woods has cleaned up in three of the last 10 Masters).

So what is it then that makes the Open so spookily distinctive? The answer to that is probably best provided in the reaction of David Duval, who after holding aloft the most prestigious prize in golf, at Lytham in 2001 mouthed "Is this it?", rather like Robert Redford's character did so despairingly in The Candidate. In Michael Ritchie's 1972 Oscar winner, as the election party is in full swing, the new Senator of California feverishly seeks out his slimy campaign manager and asks: "What now?" A shrug and a "you're on your own" is all Bill McKay gets.

And that's just it, because when you have become the so-called " champion golfer of the year" and when you have tasted what one writer recently called "the strangely dissipating euphoria of reaching the pinnacle" there might really be nowhere else to go. Apart from to a million sponsor days and roughly twice that number of press conferences, of course.

This is what Todd Hamilton believes to be truly at the root of the malaise that has hit his game like a titanium mallet with a graphite shaft since winning at Troon last year and does indeed see it as a curse that can drag the naive Open champion down. "It seems like this whole year, I've been rushing around," he said. "It's all about saying no sometimes and that's what I've learnt to do if I ever win another one, which naturally I'd love to.

"I think last year I played around the world, maybe 35 weeks. The year before I'd played 22, but with all the end of season events that you are invited to as Open champion it was kind of a shock even for a guy that enjoys playing a lot of golf.

"I think that it really shows in my play so far this year. I haven't really played terribly, but I haven't gotten much out of my play. It seems like I'm using up a lot of energy to shoot 71, 72, 73; whereas you want to have that energy put forth and shooting four-under, five-under rounds.

"That's because how hectic it's all been off the course, and at times it was kind of a struggle and a pain in the rear end to do all of the interviews and answer the same questions over and over and over. You know, it sounds kind of selfish, but just because you win a major does not guarantee you success, especially success without practising."

And in golf more than any other sport, non-practice makes non-perfect, just as Ben Curtis discovered the year before Hamilton's Haul when he kick-started the march of the great unknown with his Sandwich Surprise. Ah, the expectation that comes with such an overnight metamorphosis into the sensational that Hamilton admits "can sometimes feel like a burden" .

But, rather tellingly, the 39-year-old believes it is not the expectation from without that bears down on the Open champion so, but from within. " There is probably a little bit of feeling the pressure of living up to the title and all that," he said. "But, to be honest, any pressure that's put on me from fans or media or even friends and family, I don't let it get to me. The pressure I feel I have put on myself to do well.

"It's great to have your name announced as the reigning Open champion or whatever, but there are days when I've felt, 'Man, why don't you start playing like the Open champion instead of a first year or second year player on the Tour?' I expect a lot out of myself and maybe that's why I haven't done as well since last year's Open."

It is an intriguing but eminently logical theory, that the victor is crippled by the weight of his own ambitions to stay with the gods he visited so fleetingly on that glorious Sunday evening. But true or not true, curse or no curse, it is an argument that isn't likely to raise much sympathy from their driving range colleagues who only have eyes for the place in golfing immortality earned by this week's winner, not to mention a cheque for £720,000. "That's a problem I'd love to have," said Charles Howell III with a snort.

But young Howell and the rest should be careful what they wish for. Not every curse is delivered by an old harridan, with a pointy nose and a black cat under her arm. Sometimes they appear wearing a Royal and Ancient tie, as well. Just ask Young Tom Morris, Ian Baker-Finch, Greg Norman, John Daly, David Duval, Ben Curtis...

From hero to zero: How Open winners have fared

* 2004: Todd Hamilton (US) 274 Royal Troon. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

* 2003 Ben Curtis (US) 283 Sandwich. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

* 2002 Ernie Els (SA) 278 Muirfield. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

* 2001 David Duval (US) 274 Royal Lytham & St Annes. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

* 2000 Tiger Woods (US) 269 St Andrews. Subsequent tournament wins that year: PGA Championship Valhalla Country Club, Louisville; WGC-NEC Invitational Firestone Country Club; Canadian Open Vancouver.

* 1999 Paul Lawrie (Sco) 290 Carnoustie, Scotland. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

* 1998 Mark O'Meara (US) 280 Royal Birkdale. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

* 1997 Justin Leonard (US) 272 Royal Troon. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

* 1996 Tom Lehman (US) 271 Royal Lytham & St Annes. Subsequent tournament wins that year: The Tour Championship Tulsa, Oklahama.

* 1995 John Daly (US) 282 St Andrews. Subsequent tournament wins that year: none.

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