History favours unlikely quest of America's great unknowns
Thursday 14 July 2005
Immediate history tells us that the man cuddling the claret jug on Sunday evening is much more likely to emerge from the Tin Cup triumvirate of Jason Allred, Scott Gutschewski and Rich Barcelo.
A recently developed golf law, the Curtis-Hamilton proposition, has established that the worse golfer you are the more chance you have of winning an Open. The founders of this axiom, Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton - respectively the winners at Sandwich in 2003 and, 12 months ago, at Royal Troon - are back again to see if they can repeat the formula. Through them we have learned to beware the unknown American golfer.
The problem for our most recent winners is that they found balancing on the tip of golf's pyramid an impossibility. Both have fallen from grace, all the time proving that it is easier to regain virginity than major-winning form.
It can never be bad to win the biggest of prizes but, as Viv Nicholson once discovered, it can have unfortunate consequences. Hamilton lost his magic in the media and corporate swirl that visits even this most humble of Open winners. Still, the quest to regain it does not appear to be greatly troubling him. The 39-year-old reported for a modestly attended interview yesterday eating an ice cream.
Hamilton is the golfer who made his name on the Asian Tour, if that is not a contradiction in terms. He hails from from Oquwaka, Illinois, a township still best remembered for the death of Norma Jean, a circus elephant which was killed by lightning while tied to a tree.
This is as racy as the Hamilton story gets. There was no spend, spend, spend for him in the aftermath of his greatest payday. "We were in the process of building a new house," he said. "It's allowed us to pay it off a little bit quicker than we had anticipated. And I really haven't bought anything outlandish. All the stuff that I enjoy I get for free - golf clubs, golf clothes, things like that."
So how had this career-changing moment altered Hamilton's life? "I've been recognised a little more than in the past," he said. "I probably got recognised more last night [at the champions' dinner] than a lot of times in the States. That's kind of nice for people not to know who you are."
Guys like this usually finish last, rather than beating Ernie Els in play-offs. Yet it is probably the runner-up who is best remembered from 12 months ago, as well as others who have registered only similar achievement to Todd Hamilton.
"A lot of people still haven't heard of me because I haven't really played well since The Open," he said. "But I have the same number of majors as Phil [Mickelson]. How crazy is that?"
Curtis was, if anything, even more of a surprise winner, a figure who caused the biggest shock in Kent since a Norman, and not Greg, led his fleet over the horizon. The man from Ohio was ranked 396th in the world at the beginning of that week and qualified for the tournament only because he had tied for 13th place in the Western Open. He became the first person to win a major at his first attempt since Francis Ouimet at the 1913 US Open.
Innocence proved to be Curtis's 15th club. "Wherever I hit the ball, I was just happy to be there," he said. On the US Tour this season Curtis has missed the cut in all but three of 15 tournaments. The suspicion remains that he will play great golf for only four days in his life, but at least he selected the correct four days.
There are the theories for the victories of Curtis and Hamilton. One is that they were beacons for the strength of the modern-day game, proof that golf today has never been more gracious in bestowing its favours among the multitude. Another is that they were flukes.
"It goes to show you how deep the fields are out here," Tiger Woods says. "People don't realise how good these guys really are. It goes to show that anyone who enters the field not only has the opportunity to win but can win."
So now we must scrutinise the latest batch of American journeymen, golfers who have arrived here along largely deserted byways. They may not even be legends in their own tee times, but that, we have learned, is no disfigurement to their championship prospects. The favoured three are all embarking on their first Open.
Jason Allred, a 25-year-old rookie, possesses compelling qualifications. He has played two career PGA Tour events and missed the cut in both. Hopeful No 2 is Scott Gutschewski, at 28 a veteran of the Tight Lies Tour, the Prairie Tour and the Hooters Tour. And perhaps most persuasive of all is Rich Barcelo, who has yet to earn a dime on the PGA Tour and is not even the most famous sportsman in his family. That distinction belongs to his brother Marc, formerly a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago Cubs.
These are the men waiting to be touched by Open alchemy. All can be backed at 1,000-1. Great riches await one of them and us.
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