POTOMAC -- Ben Curtis took down the sign outside the pro shop at Mill Creek Golf Club a year after his first PGA Tour victory, the sign proclaiming the public course that his grandfather built near Columbus, Ohio, as the home of the 2003 British Open champion.
"He wanted to get the monkey off his back," Nancy Plant, one of Curtis' aunts and a part owner of the club, said yesterday morning from the clubhouse as she followed her nephew's third round in the Booz Allen Classic on the Internet. "We knew he could win another."
A new sign likely will be going up today, if Curtis can hold onto the huge lead he has built over the first 54 holes at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel. It won't be as celebrated as his win at Royal St. George's three years ago, but it could be nearly as important to his career.
At 19-under-par 194 after shooting a steady 4-under 67 yesterday, Curtis leads Brett Quigley by five strokes. Former champion Steve Stricker is seven back along with Daniel Chopra. Australians Nick O'Hern and Robert Allenby, along with Bart Bryant, are eight behind.
After breaking Adam Scott's tournament record for three rounds by one stroke, Curtis can take a shot at Scott's record of 21-under par set in 2004. Curtis also is hoping to avoid having Quigley match the record for the biggest final-round comeback, set by Justin Leonard when he overcame a five-stroke deficit and a wobbling Mark Wiebe down the stretch to win here in 1997.
"I wouldn't say it is more important [than the British Open], but it's probably as close as important to go out there and prove to myself that I can win again," said Curtis, 29, who has fared no better than a third-place finish last year at the Western Open, where he went into the final round sharing a three-stroke lead with eventual champion Jim Furyk.
While Curtis dreamt of his win in Sandwich, England, two weeks before it happened, it came as a surprise to everyone else, as does his performance at Avenel.
Curtis has no top-10 finishes this year, and only four in the past three years, so most counted him among golf's fluke major champions, right up there with 2003 PGA champion Shaun Micheel; 2004 British champion Todd Hamilton, and the all-time one-shot wonder, Orville Moody, whose only victory in 250 tour events came at the 1969 U.S. Open.
If anything, winning this tournament makes a lot more sense.
"He might have won before he should have," Bob Curtis said yesterday afternoon as he watched his son play after making the 6 1/2 -hour drive from the family's home in Ostrander, Ohio, Friday night with his wife Janice so they could get here for the morning tee time.
"There's a lot to learn. Eventually he knew he'd be back here. Maybe it will be this week, maybe not. Who knows?"
Unless he completely falls apart, or Quigley does better than the 63 he shot Friday to put himself into contention, it seems likely that Curtis will be the first wire-to-wire winner at Avenel since Rich Beem in 1999 and only the second since the tournament formerly known as the Kemper Open moved over from nearby Congressional Country Club in 1987.
Though he hasn't been as spectacular on the greens as he was during an opening-round 62 Thursday, Curtis has been almost an automaton on his approach shots. He hit 18 straight greens in regulation yesterday and is 47 of 54 overall. He is also 34 of 42 in finding fairways. Not that he is going to play it safe today.
"I'm not going to protect it, by any means," said Curtis, who will tee off at 9 this morning as tournament officials decided for the second straight day to try to finish before the possible arrival of late-afternoon thunderstorms. "Guys are going to go out there and they are going to be firing after me, so I'm going to have to keep making birdies."
Quigley, 36, will be trying to lead that charge. The nephew of Champions Tour star Dana Quigley has yet to win in 15 years on the PGA tour. He has come close, most recently at the Barclays Classic, where he was in contention on the back nine Sunday before finishing tied for third.
"It doesn't matter who I'm playing," said Quigley, who along with Phil Mickelson lost a five-stroke lead to Sergio Garcia in the final round at Colonial in 2001. "I know I have to make a bunch of birdies. Whether it's J.B. Holmes or Tiger [Woods] or Mickelson or Ben Curtis or a Q-school guy, I know I have to play well. It's not like I can shoot even par and have a chance. I need to shoot 5-under or better."
Quigley hopes to play better than those who played with Curtis yesterday. Jose Coceres of Argentina, who came into the third round trailing by one stroke after two rounds of 64, bogeyed four of the first six holes en route to a disastrous 7-over-par 78. Jeff Gove came in four strokes back and is now eight behind after a par 71.