Have Claret Jug, will travel world in quest for fulfilment
The Interview - Ben Curtis: The Open champion has been on a voyage of discovery since his stunning triumph at Sandwich. Andy Farrell hears how it has gone
Sunday 16 May 2004
A funny thing happened at Royal Troon last week. A young American walked into the clubhouse wearing trainers, jeans, a T-shirt and a golf rain-jacket. And he was not asked politely to leave. He was certainly not asked impolitely. But then Ben Curtis is not your average visitor. The Open champion fully appreciates the niceties of the game, and his excuse was immediately accepted. Curtis had flown in that morning from Cleveland, via New York, with his wife, Candace, and his golf clubs, but the rest of their luggage failed to make the journey with them.
With a little help from the clothes section of the professional's shop, Curtis would play the course the following morning, before heading over to St Andrews and then up to Carnoustie. His mission was to give himself a primer on three of the next four Open venues before he tees up in this week's Deutsche Bank Open in Heidelberg and then the Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Curtis's first proper glimpse of Royal Troon, where he will defend the title he won so unexpectedly last summer at Royal St George's, came from the safety of the upstairs television room, where he was soon drawn to the magnificent view. "So, this is the 18th," he said. Below was the final green, the fairway stretching back into the distance, with humps on the left and right the only hint, when viewed from behind, of the fiendish fairway bunkers with their huge faces. To the left, one of the enormous grandstands was almost finished. The back of another is visible behind the 17th green. On the right, yet another is in construction, while the first fairway appears behind it. Further to the west, Arran is virtually blanketed in cloud, for this is a grey day on the Ayrshire coast. "Just looking out here, I love the look and the feel," Curtis said, "even if the weather is not the best. It feels like golf."
There were many remarkable features to Curtis's victory last year. He was completely unheralded, even up to the final round. He was in 396th place on the world rankings. He was the first golfer for 90 years to win a major championship at his first attempt. He was from Kent, Ohio, and received a warm reception from the denizens of Kent, England. It was his first experience of links golf. But he would hardly be the first American to fall in love with the game along the ground; Tom Watson is another who was similarly converted.
If this was a reconnaissance trip, Curtis was not short of preparation for last year's Open. He was the first to register at the event, and was given a hole-by-hole guide by the professional, Andrew Brooks, and his son, Andrew, an assistant, which showed him how the holes played in the differing wind directions. He was the only player to talk to the Brookses.
"Everybody is different," Curtis said. "I don't think Tiger is going to walk in and ask the head pro what to do. But I went to introduce myself, said I was playing and asked if I could look at the course. I think they appreciated that, and they could not have been more helpful or supportive."
Of playing in The Open itself, Curtis has one main memory. "I was very calm. Apart from on the first tee on Thursday, I felt calm and relaxed." There are those who like to hold it against the 26-year-old that he did not win The Open in quite the style that they would wish.
He bogeyed four of the last seven holes and then was declared the champion golfer of the year when the rest of the field - including Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love and, of course, Thomas Bjorn - failed to match his score. "Part of me always wishes I finished better than I did, but everyone else was doing the same," he said.
"But the way I look at it, I played the back nine well all week. I was level par for the four days on the back nine. I am not happy about bogeying four of the last seven holes, or whatever, and hopefully next time I get into contention it will be different; but, heck, it's The Open, and things happen."
And it is one of Curtis's ambitions that he does not end up with the label of a one-hit wonder. "In the future, hopefully I'll be successful enough that that will never be a question. I don't think that anything you win, a tournament, and especially a major, is a fluke. Only one guy was under par on that course, and that was in good weather. Imagine what it would have been like if it had got nasty. I don't think you can call that a fluke."
Curtis has not won again since Sandwich, but then he had not won at the top level before then, either. One of the moments when what he had achieved really hit home came at the Grand Slam tournament in Hawaii in December, which is only for the major champions. "That's the hardest tournament to get into. There are only four of you. You realise you have done something special to get to this level."
At the start of the season Curtis also played in the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii, which is only for the previous year's US Tour winners. "You get treated so well and when we were leaving, Candace said, 'I expect to be back here next year'." No pressure there, then.
Their marriage last August had already been arranged for six months when Curtis won The Open and got an invitation to the NEC World Invitational, an event only 15 miles from home, on the same weekend. On the Saturday, he teed off at 11.30am and the wedding started at 4pm. But the sudden attention the couple were receiving took its toll. "There was a point where I just wanted to go away by ourselves for three or four days. I was overwhelmed with the attention, there were things happening every day.
"Then, with the wedding, it started to get a bit over the top. We just wanted to enjoy our evening. It was hardest on Candace because she was taking care of everything. There was no question of changing the date. If the tournament had been anywhere else, even Cleveland, I would not have played. I kept saying to Candace, 'I'll do whatever you want. If you want me to withdraw, I'll do it in a heartbeat'.
"It was the most memorable weekend of my life. I got to play golf and then get married. I was so tired the next day. We had been up until four or five in the morning and then I teed it up at 11. I shouldn't have played the next week in Boston, I was so tired. But then I had two weeks off and then we went to the Lancôme in Paris, and that's when I began to feel comfortable. It was there I suggested to Candace that we should travel around the world."
On returning to the United States, Curtis ran the idea past his agent at the International Management Group, who was initially wary but then supportive. So Curtis joined the European Tour. In the future he may even buy a flat in London to go with the second home he has just bought in Florida, which with a couple of new cars were the fruits of his £700,000 cheque from The Open.
"Both Candace and I love being at home. But the last year has opened our eyes. There is a world beyond golf and there is a world beyond Ohio and America. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh play all around the world, and I want to get to that level. There are always things you can learn by playing in different places.
"But we also want to get to know a little of the local culture. We will spend a whole day each week, from sunrise to sunset, away from the golf, like we did on the Monday of The Open last year. We had a great time in London. We went everywhere on foot and the subway and it took my mind off the golf. My wife jokes that I should have been a European. But who wouldn't want to see the great cities in Europe or places in Asia? One day we can tell our kids we were there."
Golf is perhaps not everything for this American golfer, and until last winter he would always have two months without touching a club. His form this year is not what he would like - up to the Masters he had made only one cut in the States. He is not in the top 100 of any of the main statistical categories on the US Tour. But he played all four rounds in his last two tournaments and feels that his game will improve through the summer.
The two biggest dates are next month's US Open at Shinnecock Hills, a course with links-like characteristics, and Troon in July. Instead of the bed-and-breakfast, he has rented a house which will also accommodate his parents and in-laws. "The expectations are going to be a lot greater, for obvious reasons," he said.
"I've been working on my short game because that's what it takes to win a major. That and keeping it on the fairway, which is my game anyway. I would rather be on the fairway with a four-iron than in the rough with a wedge. But if I'm not playing well, you mustn't force it. I'm sure the electricity of the crowd will help. A few extra claps will get me going."
BIOGRAPHY: Ben Curtis
Born: 26 May 1977.
Educated: Kent State University.
Family: Married Candace last August. Lives in Kent, Ohio.
Background: Grew up 50 yards from the practice green of Mill Creek GC in Ostrander, Ohio, where grandfather built the course and father is superintendent.
Amateur career: One of only three men, with Arnold Palmer and John Cook, to retain Ohio State Amateur title. Ranked No 1 amateur in US in 2000.
Professional career: Turned pro in 2000. Played on Hooters Tour in 2001 and '02, winning once. Earned US Tour card for 2003 at Q School. Qualified for Open by finishing 13th at Western Open. Maiden victory at Royal St George's.
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