Hamilton's triumph is now par for the course
Monday 19 July 2004
They were ready this year. The American journalists were not about to make the same mistake twice. This time around they had everything you would ever need to know about 'Todd Hamilton, Open champion' at their fingertips.
At Royal Troon they were ready this year. The American journalists were not about to make the same mistake two years running. This time around they had everything you would ever need to know about "Todd Hamilton, Open champion" at their fingertips.
And they were clicking with joy when the 38-year-old from Illinois so incredibly emulated Ben Curtis at Royal Troon yesterday. It seems in this, the era of golfing shocks, golfing folk have become unshockable.
Perhaps it was the Curtis factor that had warned them to come prepared concerning their supposed "unknowns" in The Open field. Or perhaps it was the fact that Hamilton had generously offered so much insight into his life at this week's press conferences. Most likely, though, is that here is a golfer who had truly arrived on the scene before The Open had begun and that his similarity with Curtis started and stopped with his nationality. And, of course, that he was a rookie on the PGA Tour.
But dig deeper into the life of Hamilton and you will not find an overnight sensation so much as an over-the-decades sensation. He came from humble beginnings in Oquawka, an Indian reserve town with a population of 1,500, 30 miles from the city of Galesburg in west Illinois.
Not an awful lot happens in Oquawka, as has been reflected by the story Hamilton has told anybody who will listen here this week. The tale has already become the stuff of Open folklore. A circus came to town in the early Seventies and a 30-year-old elephant called Norma Jean was chained to a tree on the green in the centre of the town. A thunderstorm erupted and the tree was struck by lightning. The elephant was electrocuted, dying on the spot and after a hurried meeting the pragmatic decision was taken to bury the 6,500lb animal on the spot. A boulder is still there to commemorate this bizarre occasion. After yesterday's play-off the good townsfolk probably decided that they need to erect a new monument now.
Perhaps they will do so on the course where he learnt to play golf, near Oquawka, a small nine-holer called Hend-Co Hills Golf Club in Biggsville. Now an 18-hole course, it is a modest 5,743-yard facility with an even more modest $15 (£10) weekend greens fee.
Nevertheless, it had everything the young Todd needed to satisfy the golfing bug that was to take him all the way to immortality. Hamilton went on to become a two-time Illinois state high-school champion, earning a scholarship to Oklahoma. He became an All-American there, even playing a round once with Davis Love III, then of North Carolina. But while it was full-steam ahead for Love's career, Hamilton's kept getting derailed. His father, Kent, recalled that during his son's first trip to the renowned qualifying school he needed a 73 in the final round to get his card. "He shot a 76," said Hamilton Snr.
He ran to the Asian Tour where he struggled for a few years. In 1992 his financial backers were on the verge of pulling the plug but the patience they showed paid off when Hamilton won the Asian Order of Merit. That propelled him on to the Japan Tour where he was to amass $5.6m in a 12-year campaign winning 11 titles in the process. In this time he also made what was to be the first of his four Open appearances to date. He can return here whenever he chooses now.
There was a sacrifice to be made with all this globe-hopping, however, as he would spend months away from his high-school sweetheart wife, Jaque, who was largely left alone to bring up the three children at their Dallas home.
That was compounded by his continued inability to get through the PGA Tour's qualifying school. Seven times he failed in all and when he turned up again in December he could be forgiven for being ladened with the scepticism of bitter experience. But this time it was different, this time he earnt his American card after 17 years as a professional. "To be honest, I never considered contending or even of playing in the majors," he admitted last week. "My goal was simply to get on the PGA Tour." When he did so he did not take long to make his name. At the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida earlier this year he showed the mettle that was to serve him so well yesterday by overcoming the loss of a four-shot lead to birdie the last two and defeat one Davis Love. That catapulted him into the world's top 50 and netted him the exemption to this week's Open. And once at Royal Troon . . . well, the rest is history.
So Oquawka has a new legend now. "I hope I'm now more famous than that elephant," Hamilton said yesterday. Indeed, you could almost hear his hometown saying "Goodbye Norma Jean".
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