It did not take long for Ben Curtis to upset someone. Tournament officials at the Greater Hartford Open, taking place this weekend in Cromwell, Connecticut, understood, at least publicly, the reasons for the new Open champion withdrawing from their event.
Curtis pleaded exhaustion. He might have added bewilderment, having swapped his low-key status as a rookie on tour for the spotlight of being the most surprising major champion for decades.
Curtis left Kent, England, saying he would not change as a person. He arrived home in Kent, Ohio, to find out life was changing around him. He appeared on the top-rated breakfast programme, The Today Show, on Tuesday morning and with David Letterman, king of the late-night chat shows, on Thursday. A month ago, he was in the Letterman audience after a friend got him some tickets.
What he did not do was play, as originally scheduled, in the Greater Hartford Open, which got the Hartford Courant newspaper slightly upset. "Ben Curtis made a commitment to the 2003 GHO. He did it when he was a nobody, when he was ranked 396th in the world," thundered their sports columnist. "His decision doesn't make him evil. His decision, however, does show this country boy to be city slick. The little-time boy learned quickly how to be big-time."
Ian Baker-Finch won The Open in 1991 and immediately went to play in the GHO as he had planned. He just made the cut and finished joint last, but showed off the claret jug in the clubhouse. Few could expect Curtis to perform so soon after his astonishing victory, for which neither he nor anyone else was prepared.
"It's been a whirlwind few days," said Jay Danzi, Curtis's agent at IMG. "We're trying to let Ben sleep it off." His sudden success leaves the 26-year-old with two problems, albeit nice problems to have. There is living up to the expectations on the course of both himself and everyone watching. Before Sunday, his best result was 13th.
More victories will be expected, more majors even. The latter is more his thing, Curtis reckons. "I feel like my game is good for majors," he said, "because you don't have to shoot around 20 under par. You can shoot right around par and have a chance. That's where I feel my game is best." But there is also dealing with all the extraneous issues that come with suddenly becoming a star.
"I think I'll feel more pressure now," Curtis told the New York Times. "Going into the USPGA next month, I'll be the last player to win a major. A lot of attention is going to be on me. People are going to look at me as the Open champion. I'm going to be an attraction, I guess. I say it's not going to bother me, but deep down, I know a lot of people are going to have high expectations."
There will be new sponsorship contracts. His only deal before last Sunday was with a Taiwanese tyre maker, Kenda. Then there is his schedule. He can immediately add the four majors for the next five years - and The Open until he is 65 - plus the world championships and events like the Grand Slam in Hawaii for the year's four major winners. His next trip back to Britain should be for the HSBC World Match Play at Wentworth in October. His biggest scheduling headache concerns the NEC World Invitational, which he could not have conceived of playing in when he planned his wedding to Candace Beatty six months ago for the Saturday of the event. He is trying to compromise - play golf in the afternoon, get married in the evening.
Part of the Curtis story is that up to last Sunday he kept everything simple. Keeping it simple off the course may be his best ally. The Texan Bill Rodgers won The Open at St George's but a few years later had become disillusioned with the professional circuit.
Danzi is aware that Curtis presents a scenario never seen even by IMG. "It's not just that he was an unknown," Danzi said. "It was the way he handled it. He's not going to get caught up in this."
Whatever they think in Hartford, the benefit of the doubt must rest with the Open champion. "I'm not going to turn into a jerk just because I won," he said. "I'm going to be the man I always was."
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