New horizons exhilarate the most amiable of champions

Triumph at Troon has transformed life for the archetypal journeyman. Andy Farrell hears how the world has become smaller and busier
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The Independent Online

For a man who spent 12 years commuting from Texas to Japan to play golf, popping home from Ireland, where he was playing last Sunday, and then coming back to Wentworth, where he will be playing this week, was but a trifle. After all, Todd Hamilton has friends wanting to play golf with him, and there was a college football game to attend.

But does he have a magic cure for jet lag? "No," he laughed, "but I do sleep on planes. I usually stay up late, pack in the middle of the night and only go to bed for a couple of hours. I wake up cranky but as soon as I get on the plane I fall asleep."

Hamilton had plenty of members of the Vaquero club in Westlake, Texas, where he is about to move into a new home, wanting to play golf with him even before he won The Open Championship. That they now get to play with the holder of the Claret Jug is merely their reward for constant support as their mate took eight attempts over 17 years to reach the PGA Tour in the States.

Apart from the new house, and a new car for his wife, Jacque, little has changed for Hamilton since he defeated Ernie Els in a play-off at Royal Troon back in July. Certainly not much about the man himself. "My head is not about to get too big," he said. "I have plenty of friends who won't let that happen."

But certain things have changed, of course. Mainly, his schedule for the final three months of the year. "I am going to be playing in a lot of events that I usually watch on television," he said. One of them is the HSBC World Match Play Championship over the West Course at Wentworth starting on Thursday, where, you never know, there may be a rematch with Els at some point.

Then there will be events such as the Grand Slam of Golf in Hawaii, which is only for the four major winners, where he will join Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson, another debutant in the tournament; the Million Dollar in Sun City; and Tiger Woods' own event in California.

"It's going to be different," he said after finishing sixth, and the leading American, at the AmEx World Championship at Mount Juliet in Co Kilkenny in Ireland last weekend. "It's a matter of getting my game in order. Ireland was a good start, although I found it tough in the wind and rain on the last day."

One event that Hamilton did have to sit at home and watch was the Ryder Cup. The Open champion's claims for a wild-card place were overlooked by the United States captain, Hal Sutton. As such he was lumped in a similar category to other recent unexpected American major winners such as Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel and Rich Beem. Yet many believe that Hamilton could have only helped Sutton's team at Oakland Hills - and as a proven winner at every level that he has played, he may not slip back into obscurity quietly.

But any bold statements will be reserved for the course. Hamilton speaks softly, slowly and thoughtfully, and is far too modest and unassuming to make much of a case for his inclusion in the United States Ryder Cup side. "I would have loved to have played," he said. "I'm not to the point where I'm going to lose sleep over it or slice my wrists or think of doing anything like that. There is always next year, or two years' time, I guess."

Hamilton is not shy to point out he would have benefited from suggestions that the US qualifying system should be reduced to one year, as it is in Europe. But as a rookie on the US Tour, he remained an outsider. His past accomplishments in Asia and on the Japanese Tour were dismissed, as were those at Troon.

"I don't know if Hal Sutton knew I had won a couple of matchplay events over in Japan. Granted, it's not PGA players or European Tour players, but it was head-to-head competition. Me playing against guys that the crowd was rooting for, all Japanese guys. You could say in a hostile environment, although they're pretty nice galleries, it's not like they spit on you or throw things at you."

And where Hamilton differs from some of his contemporaries is that he does not think golf begins and stops at 72-hole strokeplay. "I enjoy playing different formats, whether it's Stableford or matchplay. In matchplay, it's head-to-head, it can be a crapshoot, but it's a lot of fun for the gallery. You can be aggressive and you have to take your chances. If you are in the trees, you are not just doing the sensible things and chipping out sideways."

When it comes to his schedule, his biggest problem seems to be rationing the golf he plays at home, rather than on Tour. "I don't like practice rounds," he said. "I find them boring, unless I am trying to learn about a new course. And I don't do social, hit-and-giggle golf. But I love playing with my friends. I might take on three of the members at the club, or pair up with the highest-handicap guy against the other two. We will always have something on it, even if it is only a dollar. Often we forget to say what the bet is going out, and the losers have to do some serious negotiating at the end.

"I don't like losing $5 to my friends at home, that's how much winning can become addictive. I have always said that it doesn't matter where you win, whether it's a junior event or The British Open. You have to get used to winning and the feeling of winning. I have got a lot of experience. I will be 39 years old on the Monday after the World Match Play and I have played a lot of golf, and seen a lot of golf, good and bad.

"In Japan, I didn't learn how to putt, I didn't learn how to chip or hit the ball. But I learned a lot about course management and, in particular, being patient. Not knowing how to speak the language, the course conditions were not always great, you are not going to do well every day. But you have to take advantage when you do play."

If there is one thing that Hamilton shares with some of the best golfers in the world it is in having learned to adapt to the conditions wherever he has to play, which is something that those who walk straight out of college on to the US Tour may not have as much experience of.

"If you look at the players in the top 10 in the world, most of them play all over the world. They see all the different conditions and culture lifestyles. They seem to be able to bypass all the stuff like the long flights and not let it affect their games. I saw a lot of guys in Japan who were world- class golfers, but they just didn't like to travel outside their culture."

It was only at the start of this year that Hamilton reached the PGA Tour, a sort of sporting Shangri-La. "Well, yes to it being a Shangri-La," Hamilton said. "I always wanted to play on the PGA Tour. It took eight tries over 17 years, but it is much more than I thought it was. A friend of mine, Brian Watts, made it on to the PGA Tour a few years ago and he arranged tickets for me and my wife to go to see him play in an event in Texas. It was amazing to see the crowds and how the players were treated first hand.

"But being part of it is even better. There is not just competition on the course, but between the tournaments to get the players as well. Some tournaments offer free dry cleaning, others tickets to other sporting events. In Japan there were probably five events that had courtesy cars; here they give a car every week at the airport."

But could that level of comfort actually breed contentment? "I guess it could. For me, being nearly 39, I might appreciate it a bit more. I have seen the other side so I don't expect anything. You know there will be a free meal all provided, but quite often on my way to the course I might stop off and have a sandwich. You can't expect everything to be handed to you every hour of the day, because it is not going to happen, is it?"

The rewards on offer still amaze Hamilton. This week at Wentworth, the first prize is £1m, or almost $1.8m in his currency. "I cannot believe that I am involved in such an élite event with 16 players and where people like Ernie have won so often. Last year, I played about 20 events in Japan and a couple of majors or World Championship events and I played my rear end off for $1.1m. And now in one week I could earn almost half as much again. It's like the rich get richer but, I guess, you earn your opportunities."

Todd Hamilton, Open champion, you have certainly earned yours.