Inspirational value of a seasoned 'rookie'

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The Independent Online

Ben Curtis arrived out of a clear blue sky, Todd Hamilton was merely obscured by the glare of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els et al. For Hamilton, winning is winning. Since January 2003, Hamilton's six victories match the number for Woods. Only two players possess more, Vijay Singh on seven and Els on 10.

The kicker is that only Hamilton's tally includes a major championship. The new Open champion took possession of the claret jug on Sunday evening after a day of breathtakingly dramatic golf on this magnificent Ayrshire links. To Hamilton it was all new and it wasn't.

"I always said if you can win tournaments it doesn't matter whether it be the junior club championship or the Players Championship in the States or the Japan Open," he said. "If you go through the trials and tribulations throughout a four-day tournament and win, it can only benefit you in the future.

"Definitely very good for your mental outlook," he added. "I hope me being a rookie on the PGA Tour sparks other people to good things. I hope it can spur on guys, whether they are rookies on the PGA Tour, or on the Canadian Tour, the Hooters Tour or the Challenge Tour here in Europe. 'If that guy can do it, who's that guy? I should be able to do that.' I think that's good for the game of golf."

Hamilton is some rookie. He is 38 and only qualified for the US circuit at his eighth attempt. But he won the Honda Classic in March by birdieing the last two holes to beat Davis Love by one. He was on the Asian Tour for five years and won the Order of Merit in 1992.

"You never would have thought something like that was going to happen," Hamilton said. "The people who backed me financially didn't have enough money for another year. It's probably a good thing I didn't know that. It seems like a fairy tale."

Topping the money list meant he was exempt for the Japanese Tour and won 11 times there, including four times last year. He commuted for four to six weeks at a time from his home near Dallas, sleeping throughout the 14-hour flights.

"There were a lot of foreign guys, Australian, US, a guy from Colombia, a guy from the Philippines. I felt that us playing over there raised the Japanese players' games.

"Shigeki Maruyama and Hidemichi Tanaka are very good players now in America who did well in Japan. I played with Shigeki the first time he won a tournament and I knew good things were in store for him.

"The TV in Japan is not really that good so it was useless for me to go back to the hotel. I'd stay at the golf course and practise until almost dark. When I'm at home I have a lot of friends who like to play golf. If I have a fault, I maybe play too much golf. But it beats working, that's for sure."

But playing with friends is one thing, holding off Els for 40 holes over the weekend, with Phil Mickelson and others snapping at his heels, was another. Six of the top-seven in the world finished ninth or better. "Everyone looks at America and Europe but there's a big world out there," said Els.

"There are a lot of quality players. I knew Todd was going to be tough. He's a nice man. Whenever our paths crossed, we chatted. I always knew he was a good player and he wasn't going to back off."

Curtis was 396th in the world when he won at Sandwich last year. Shaun Micheel was the 169th ranked player when he captured the USPGA Championship a month later. Hamilton earned an exemption for The Open by being in the world's top 50 in May. Now he is 16th.

In contrast to the 50-odd Americans who didn't bother to turn up to The Open qualifier in the States, Hamilton has got to the top the hard way. But the American influence on The Open remains strong. This was their sixth successive win at Royal Troon and the eighth in the last 10 Opens.

Els, whose Sundays in the majors this season have been brutal, could not stop the run of first-time Open winners since Greg Norman won for a second time in 1993.

The last 10 majors have been won by different players, sadly none of them European, although there was also a streak of 15 before a repeat winner between 1994 and '98.

"Equipment may play its part but the fact is there are more players at the top level than ever before and they are working harder at their games," said Peter Dawson, the secretary of the Royal and Ancient.

The winning score of 10 under par was two strokes worse than seven years ago, the big-headed drivers and balls that are less susceptible to side spin are still a concern.

"For the first time the leading players of the day are saying something has to be done," said Dawson. "Players later in their career have been talking about it but this week I've had conversations with Tiger Woods, Ernie Els among others.

"They feel the gap between the great players and the good players is not as great as it was with the older equipment. It's something we need to pay attention to but getting it right is more important than rushing to judgement."

The pace of play was much improved on previous years, although a qualifier, Andrew Willey, was penalised a stroke for slow play.

The new recording procedures saved Rich Beem, the former USPGA champion, from being disqualified for signing for a wrong score.

It all added to a wonderful week, Dawson rating the quality of the venue as "9.99 out of 10". Els could mark himself similarly. Hamilton was a 10.