Nowhere men on the scent of glory
The winner might be a big name, but more likely he'll be a Curtis, a Hamilton or a Lawrie
Sunday 16 July 2006
They strike while the seven-iron is hot, and nobody knows who on earth they are or where they have come from. Beautifully camouflaged to melt into the background, they creep up on the leaderboard like a fifth columnist and walk away with the old silver Claret Jug before anybody has noticed. Security is tight at The Open, but it is powerless in the face of the advance of the tip-toe champion from Palookaville.
Whereas Wimbledon know that a man from Switzerland will be dominating Centre Court, the Royal & Ancient have not got a clue as to who will be leading their tournament when they assemble in front of the clubhouse at Royal Liverpool next Sunday evening.
The odds are it will be an American, but it will not necessarily be Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. No, the recent phenomenon is for a player who is totally anonymous from Los Angeles to New York and all points north and south to take The Open by stealth rather than storm.
Beginning with John Daly - the Wild Thing will be at the Cavern Club in Liverpool on Tuesday, launching his latest opus to overkill - at St Andrews in 1995, the Americans have won nine of the last 11 Opens and, of course, Tiger triumphed when the tournament returned to the Old Course at St Andrews 12 months ago.
However, the world No 1 has never won the championship back to back, and as he was not even born when Hoylake last hosted the championship, it could be argued that this, The 135th Open, is more open than ever.
Few people could spell Mark Calcavecchia's name when he won at Royal Troon in 1989. Ben Curtis posed problems of a different sort when he emerged victorious at Royal St George's in 2003. It was Ben who, how, why? Ben Hur stood a better chance of winning.
Ranked 396th in the world, Curtis got to play in Kent by virtue of finishing joint 13th in the Western Open on the US PGA Tour, but he had never competed in a major tournament. In the event he shot rounds of 72, 72, 70 and 69 and his aggregate of 283, one under par, was a stroke in front of Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn and two better than Woods and Davis Love, who were tied fourth. Curtis was the first player since Francis Ouimet at the 1913 US Open to win a major at his first attempt.
When he returned to The Open the following year the man from Kent, Ohio, missed the halfway cut at Troon, but in every other regard normal service was not resumed.
Enter one Todd Hamilton, aged 38. He blew in from Galesburg, Illinois, a journeyman player who thought of packing it all in until he discovered he had a yen for the Japanese Tour. He finally made the US Tour in 2003 after eight appearances at the qualifying school, but he did not know a pot bunker from a pot noodle.
Hamilton had missed the cut in The Open at Royal St George's, but at Troon 12 months later he did a Curtis. He scored 71, 67, 67 and 69 to go into a four-hole play-off with Ernie Els, a former champion and the overwhelming favourite.
For the second year running, the bookmakers were not so much laughing all the way to the bank as splitting the sides of their satchels. Nobody, but nobody, had a dime on Hamilton, whereas Els had been backed from here to kingdom come.
In the play-off Hamilton reeled off four pars and Els made his faux pas with a bogey four at the short hole. The American writers knew as much about Hamilton as they did about Curtis, which was zero.
How can this happen? Britain's ancient links are supposed to be mastered by craftsmen who have spent years learning the tricks of a trade wind that is alien to America, not by wannabes from the Hooters Tour.
So who will be the man from nowhere, the stranger to strike fear into Hoylake? America has any number of bounty hunters lurking in the undergrowth, including J J Henry, who qualified by winning the Buick, Sean O'Hair, Bart Bryant, Brett Quigley, Brett Wetterich, Ben Crane, Lucas Glover and Hunter Mahan, who all sound as if they have been made up by Raymond Chandler. The player who stands out, however, is the 6ft 4in Bo Van Pelt.
When he turned pro in 1998 he struggled to make a buck - "I had no chance, I couldn't keep it on the planet" - but at the third time of asking on the US Tour he is beginning to make a name for himself. Wearing fluorescent orange trousers, he was joint sixth recently in the Wachovia championship. From Richmond in Indiana, he is the son of Bob Van Pelt (Bo obviously sounds better than Junior), who played in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Bo, who is 31, is no rookie when it comes to The Open. He played at Royal Troon two years ago and finished joint 30th, and last year he was tied 52nd at St Andrews, 14 strokes behind Tiger. Curtis and Hamilton, by the way, both missed the cut on the same two-round total of 148.
Van Pelt is very good at making cuts. In hitting greens in regulation he is 83rd, but nobody on the US Tour makes more birdies. He took time out to locate the John Lennon Airport and withdrew from the Booz Allen Classic - it was won by Curtis - to prepare for The Open. Next year the Championship returns to Carnoustie, the Scottish course where in 1999 Paul Lawrie, another rank outsider, capitalised on Jean van de Velde doing a sort of Zidane at the 18th in the final round. Although the Frenchman came to grief at the Barry Burn it is Lawrie who has since disappeared, almost without trace.
Van Pelt, who lives in Tulsa, went to Oklahoma State University, Todd Hamilton's old college. Scary. Bo has never won a tournament worth a lick, which should make him an ideal contender in the 1,000-1 category at Royal Liverpool. It could be that his name is written all over the Claret Jug, and better that for the engraver than Arron Oberholser.
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