Curtis finds success difficult to pin down

British Open: After his surprise win at Royal St. George's last July, Ben Curtis is still trying to deal with the burden of increased expectations.

July 13, 2004|By Ed Sherman | Ed Sherman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TROON, Scotland - Ben Curtis walked into the clubhouse at Royal St. George's last July and nobody noticed. He was an unknown American rookie coming over to play in his first British Open.

He arrived early to play a few practice rounds on the course. The people in the clubhouse probably figured he would miss the cut and head back for the states, like most rookies do.

Even going into the final round, when the 396th-ranked player in the world somehow managed to stay on a leader board that included Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III, the expectation was that he would carve a 78.

Instead, Curtis stunned the golf world by shooting a 69. In a span of four days, he went from anonymous to one of the most unlikely British Open champions ever. The 750-to-1 shot came in.

A year later, Curtis won't sneak onto Royal Troon this week. He walks through the front door as the defending British Open champion.

With it comes the burden of an intense spotlight and expectations. The Open champion is revered over here. Curtis has gotten a full dose of "special treatment" by playing several events on the European Tour this year.

The attention will intensify this week. Curtis is bracing for the deluge.

"I've done a lot of stuff in advance, so I can concentrate on golf and spend time with the family," Curtis said. "It's going to be a crazy week because I'm the defending champ. Everyone wants to be that at least once in his life. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Life hasn't been the same since Curtis walked off the 18th green at Royal St. George's with the Claret Jug. Curtis immediately stepped into a whirlwind that had him pulled in 18 directions.

After the British Open, he missed the cut in three of his next seven tournaments.

"The first three or four months was hard because it was hard to go home and practice," Curtis said. "I was so tired and drained because you're on the go for 12 hours a day. You get home and you just want to relax and enjoy your time."

There was a carryover effect going into 2004. He opened the season with three missed cuts in five tournaments. He then failed to get to the weekend in The Players Championship and Masters.

That's hardly the record expected from a British Open championship. Curtis, though, didn't think that way. Instead, he focused on the fact that this still is his second year on the PGA Tour.

"I didn't pay attention to [all the expectations] because I knew I was still a rookie," he said. "Just because you win ... I mean, I felt like I was still a rookie and I was seeing a lot of places for the first time. I'm still seeing courses for the first time. So I don't worry about the expectations."

Curtis did see some progress after the Masters. He had his best finish, a tie for eighth, in the Memorial. Then he finished 30th in the U.S. Open.

Curtis opened strong in the Western Open with a 67, but got wiped out the following day with a 78. Consistency obviously remains a problem. For the season, he has won $419,485, missing six cuts in 13 starts.

Curtis is young. His game still is developing.

Ultimately, though, Curtis' career will be judged on his record after the British Open. Will he be able to validate his improbable victory with more titles? Or will Curtis be a one-hit wonder?

Curtis knows the stakes have been raised considerably since he left Royal St. George's. He now is battling against history.

"I want to prove that winning the Open was no fluke," he said. "I really haven't done anything since the Open. Until I do, this will be a Cinderella story."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

British Open

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Royal Troon Golf Course; Troon, Scotland

Course: Par 71, 7,175 yards

Television: Thursday-Friday, 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m., TNT; Saturday, 7-9 a.m., TNT; 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7; Sunday 6-8 a.m., TNT; 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7. Defending champion: Ben Curtis

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