Curtis' 62 leads at Avenel

'03 British Open champ hopes fast Booz Allen start can lead to elusive second win



POTOMAC -- If Ben Curtis does nothing else in his career, his surprise victory in the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George's secured a place, however obscure, in the history of the game.

Problem is, Curtis has done little, if anything, since that sunny summer day in Sandwich, England. Ranked 396th in the world at the time of his win, Curtis got as high as 33rd after the victory but is back to 205th.

"I've been telling a few people, I feel like I did three years ago," Curtis said yesterday. "Just making a lot of cuts. Just haven't put four rounds together. So I felt like if I could get four rounds together, then I would play extremely well and maybe have a chance to win."

A 9-under-par 62 in the opening round of the Booz Allen Classic at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel could go a long way toward securing Curtis his second victory.

For the time being, it gave Curtis a one-stroke lead over journeyman Jeff Gove, who narrowly missed birdie putts of 46 and 22 feet on the last holes. Jose Coceres of Argentina is two strokes behind. Veteran left-hander Steve Flesch and journeyman Will MacKenzie are three back.

It was the lowest round Curtis has ever shot in competition. Only an 8-foot birdie miss on the par-4 18th hole prevented him from tying the course record set two years ago by Charles Howell III.

Asked if he ignores the chatter that his only win as a pro was a fluke, Curtis said, "I've got enough motivation to win again and to be competitive again. There's so many good players in this world that have won only once - or haven't won anything."

As a result of his major championship victory, Curtis went on to win the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year award. He has had only four top-10 finishes since, none this year, and has missed the cut in seven of the 10 majors he has played since the British.

"I thought I was dealing with it well, but the more I look back on it, maybe I would have done a few things differently," said Curtis, now 29. "It was my rookie year, I got thrown in there. I think there's a few tournaments where I wasn't ready to play."

Curtis has been in this position before but has never been able to finish strong. At last year's Western Open, Curtis was tied for the lead with Jim Furyk after three rounds, three strokes clear of the field. He shot 74 on Sunday to finish third, while Furyk shot 68 to beat Tiger Woods by two strokes.

"I tried to use how I played on Sunday at the British to get me through those final rounds," said Curtis, the first in 80 years to win a major in his first attempt. "Obviously I was nervous and it's not an easy thing to deal with and you've got some of the best players in the world chasing you."

That certainly won't be the case here.

Gove, 35, is back for a third try at the PGA Tour after a three-year absence. Coceres, 42, won twice in 2001, but has not been the same since breaking his right arm playing pickup soccer the following year. Flesch, 39, also has two victories, most recently at Colonial in 2004. MacKenzie, 31, is in his second year after knocking around golf's minor leagues for a decade.

"Well, obviously it helps that they are not here," Curtis said of a field that has no player ranked in the world's top 20. "If Phil, Tiger, Ernie are here, they are going to be at the top of the leader board by the end of the week. Whoever is there, they are going to be tough to beat."

It was pretty clear from the start yesterday that Curtis wasn't still at the U.S. Open, where he finished 57th after an opening round 78. Curtis made four straight birdies in one stretch on the front nine and later had a string of five straight birdies on the back.

"Everything was easy," Curtis said. "It was just slow and easy. I think after playing last week, the fairways look like they are 80 yards wide, the greens look huge, so you just kind of free-swing. Other than one day last week, I hit it pretty well."

One of the benefits for Curtis after winning the British Open was a deal he signed with NFL Properties, similar to the one that the late Payne Stewart had. Curtis wears the colors of the local team at each event he plays and yesterday he was decked out in the purple-and-black of the Ravens.

Why would a Cleveland Browns fan wear Ravens colors, in Washington no less?

"I thought I would get it out of the way today with an early tee time and beat the crowd," Curtis said. "Who would have thought that my least-favorite team, that I would go on to shoot a career low? Maybe I'll have to wear it again later on this week."

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