Hamilton's British win puts Oquawka on map

Illinois town celebrates native son's major triumph


July 20, 2004|By Reid Hanley | Reid Hanley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

OQUAWKA, Ill. - The endless fields of corn and soybeans stop here at the Mississippi River. This is a fishing and boating town of 1,539 people.

On Sunday it became a golf town. When Todd Hamilton tapped in for par on the 76th hole of the 133rd British Open, there was not another town in the world - not St. Andrews, not Pinehurst, not Pebble Beach - that was more important to the game in that moment.

Oquawka (pronounced O-KWAK-a) was mostly known - if it was known at all - for its proximity to the great river, and for its pork tenderloin sandwiches.

Now it is known as the home of the 2004 British Open champion.

Nearly all of the eyes in town were glued to the television Sunday, especially the two belonging to Kent Hamilton, Todd's father. When the last putt fell, the little river town went bonkers.

"It was wild," said Linda Hawbaker, Hamilton's aunt, an Oquawka native who lives in Wrigleyville but summers in a "Tobacco Road" trailer with a river view. "There were some fireworks going off, people were honking their car horns, boats passing by honked and waved. It was really something."

Ten miles away at the Hend-Co Hills Club, the converted cornfield where Hamilton learned to play golf, the reaction was similar. The clubhouse was up for grabs.

"It was mayhem," general manager Bryan Hubbard said. "I thought we were going to have to replace the windows and restructure the building. It was something."

Hamilton's British Open triumph is a great story of a 38-year-old PGA Tour rookie beating the game's greatest players. How he came to be a 38-year-old PGA Tour rookie is a better one.

Hamilton developed into a two-time Class A high school state champion and earned a scholarship to Oklahoma. He turned pro after four years at Oklahoma and his career took several interesting turns.

Stymied by repeated failures at the PGA Tour's qualifying school, Hamilton played on pro tours in Canada, Asia and Japan and on the second-tier U.S. circuit now known as the Nationwide Tour.

The money was good, especially in Japan, where Hamilton won four tournaments last year. But playing overseas meant time away from his family: wife Jacque, his high school sweetheart, and their three children.

Finally, on his eighth attempt, Hamilton earned his PGA Tour card last fall. In March he marked himself as a player to watch by winning the Honda Classic with birdies on the last two holes. In April, he brought his father to the Masters.

"It was great," said Kent Hamilton, who remembers being so overcome with pride he went behind a tree at Augusta National and cried.

Sunday, Kent Hamilton watched the drama from his bachelor house overlooking the Mississippi, in a room filled with pictures of Todd and his family. There were moments of doubt, such as a bogey on the 72nd hole that necessitated the playoff with Ernie Els, but overall Todd Hamilton exhibited the same calm demeanor he has demonstrated since he was a kid. In fact, he was the only Hamilton who was calm when the tournament ended.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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