Ben Curtis returns to scene of 2003 stunner
AP National Writer
SANDWICH, England – Ben Curtis never gets too worked up about anything.
Back in 2003, when he pulled off one of the most stunning wins in golf history, Curtis didn’t comprehend the significance until he returned to the U.S.
“We came down the escalator in baggage claim and there were thousands of people down there,” Curtis recalled Monday. “That’s when it really hit that this was a lot bigger deal than I thought it was.”
And now that he’s back at the scene of his improbable British Open triumph, how’s he feeling?
Same as always.
“I just got here and got acclimated a little bit with the course and the grounds again,” Curtis said, looking and sounding as if he might doze off any second. “I’m sure on Thursday I’ll be a bit more excited and a bit more fired up and ready to go.”
Lately, Curtis hasn’t had much reason to get excited about his game.
He’s missed more cuts than he’s made this season, so naturally he hopes that being back at Royal St. George’s will give him a bit of a spark.
“It definitely gives you a little bit of confidence because you know you’ve done it before, and there’s no reason why you can’t do it again,” Curtis said. “I just hope this is my week. But I’m not going to think about holding that trophy yet. Hopefully when the last putt is holed on Sunday, it will be coming my way.”
Then again, the 34-year-old has never put much stock in karma. He certainly doesn’t think he’s got some sort of special edge just because he claimed the claret jug eight years ago at this course on the English coast.
Curtis didn’t even bother trying to follow the identical routine that worked so well in ’03. Back then, he stayed at a place that wasn’t much bigger than the podium he was sitting on for his interview in the media center. This time, he bashfully admitted to doling out more than $10,000 for a home that could accommodate all his family and friends for the week.
“I’m not a big believer that you have to do the same thing every time you come back,” Curtis said. “I’m just trying to keep it relaxed and enjoyable for everybody so when I get back to the house, it’s not about the golf. It’s just about being together.”
While Curtis has put together a solid career – he’s won two more times on the PGA Tour and played on the American team that won the 2008 Ryder Cup – but he’s still known mainly as the guy who won a major championship on his very first try.
That week, he arrived at Royal St. George’s ranked No. 396 in the world, barely known in golf. But something clicked over those four days, giving hope to everyone who supposedly doesn’t have a chance.
Kyle Stanley was the last guy to qualify for this British Open, earning his spot with a runner-up finish Sunday at the John Deere Classic. This will be his first major championship as a professional, and he doesn’t have much experience at links golf.
There’s no reason for him to feel he can actually win.
Then he thinks of what Curtis did.
“This game is a lot of instinct, a lot of feel,” Stanley said, looking a bit bleary-eyed after an overnight flight from the States. “You never know when it’s going to be your week.”
Eight years ago, Curtis arrived in England with few expectations.
“Really, the only goal I had was to play four days and see what it was like,” he said. “It was my first major. I just wanted to see what it was like and just enjoy it. I never thought (about winning) coming in here. I said, ‘This is the last time I might play in it.”‘
Now, he’s good to go until age 65.
Looking back, Curtis sensed it was going be his week the night before the final round. He was solidly in contention, though still barely noticed among the bigger names on the leaderboard. His now-wife Candace asked him what he expected to do the next day.
“I just kind of looked at her,” Curtis remembered, “and said, ‘I’m going to win.”‘
Win he did, though he was a bit shaky coming down the stretch and needed plenty of help from Thomas Bjorn, who squandered a two-stroke lead with four holes to play.
“I think we had a little bit of a wait on 12,” Curtis said. “That’s when it kind of sunk in that I’m leading the tournament … that I could win this tournament. That’s when the rookie nerves came in.”
He pulled himself together and finished with a 2-under 69 that left him as the only player to break par. Bjorn, after recapturing the lead, threw it all away when he bogeyed the 15th, then needed three shots to escape a pot bunker at the par-3 16th.
Curtis had already finished his round by the time Bjorn fell apart. In fact, he got word of the triumph from caddie Andy Sutton – hired only at the start of the week – while on the practice range getting ready for a possible playoff.
The extra holes, it turned out, weren’t needed.
Curtis kept Sutton on his bag until about a year ago, when he decided to switch in hopes of breaking his slump. The two remain close, however, and the caddie even popped in to see his former boss Sunday night.
“He actually surprised me at the house,” Curtis said. “I was grilling chicken on the grill and here he comes walking out with one of the kids in his arms. I’m like, ‘How did you get here?’ I didn’t know he was coming. But he’s a good friend of mine, and we still talk regularly.”
They’ll be seeing plenty of each other in the first two rounds. Sutton is now working for Aaron Baddeley, who is paired with Curtis and Paul Casey on Thursday and Friday.
There might be another reunion this week. Bjorn got into the tournament as an alternate Monday, giving him a chance to make up for what happened eight years ago – even as Curtis tries to repeat it.
“It’s just a terrible thing that happened to him,” Curtis said. “Thomas is a good guy and a good player, and it would be a shame if (he was) not here playing this week.”