2004: Royal Rookie
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
On his way to becoming the latest PGA Tour rookie to claim the Claret Jug in make-believe manner, Todd Hamilton teed off at Royal Troon a 250-1 long shot but with enough good British Open omens to fill an elephant burial ground. Hamilton happens to know something about that
cemetery subject, not to mention Open harbingers, for a lightning-struck circus
elephant named Norma Jean was put to rest three decades ago in the square of tiny Oquawka, his Indian-settled hometown in west-central Illinois.
As for portent, it seems odd to suggest anyone foresaw Scottish glory for Hamilton, a 38-year-old American frequent-flier just months removed from a dozen years of 14-hour commutes to Tokyo for the Japan Golf Tour. It defied imagination that someone in a four-month slump would end up outdueling the heavyweight likes of playoff opponent Ernie Els and third-place Phil Mickelson July 18 at the 133rd Open Championship.
But the hints – honest Oquawka Injun – were there.
The first came in March at the Honda Classic, where his pro-am partners told him, “Something
special will happen to you this year because we played with Ben Curtis in last year’s pro-am.” Curtis, of course, would go on to shock in the 2003 Open
at Royal St. George’s. Yen-rich Hamilton would win that Honda in his sixth start as a Tour member and then, like Curtis, show the United Kingdom that the new unlikely path to jug possession is through Tour Q-School the prior December.
“I told Todd, ‘You have to take (the Honda
partners) with you wherever you go now,” Jacque Hamilton said after her high-school-sweetheart
husband made four pars in defeating three-time major winner Els, 15-16, in a playoff covering
Jacque sensed something might be up, too, when a priest named Jason, sitting next to her on the flight from Chicago to Glasgow, promised to talk to the Lord on Hamilton’s behalf. The priest, heading on a golf vacation, told her he hadn’t been sure of which professional golfer to support but now would “know whom to pray for.” Nor did it hurt that the same airplane carried a journalist who had been on the 1997 Chicago-Glasgow flight Justin Leonard took en route to becoming the last Open champion at Troon. Leonard, like Hamilton, is a homeowner at Vaquero, a high-end private and now two-jug club near Dallas.
Hamilton encountered another good sign in a Wednesday practice round when he and caddie Ron (Bambi) Levin walked down No. 18. They saw Hamilton’s name on top of the large yellow
leaderboard above the massive grandstand. Bambi told the boss, “The guy running the leaderboard is probably named Hamilton and wanted to get a
picture of it.” Hamilton smiled and took a different tack. “Smart guy,” Hamilton said. “Let’s make that happen on Sunday. That’s our goal.”
If that wasn’t enough, the superstitious husband and wife on Friday saw in a British newspaper a headline that proclaimed the success of a soccer team named, yes, Hamilton. They beamed once more. “We look for that kind of stuff,” Jacque Hamilton said.
More Hamilton headlines would come Monday morning, only they were his. “I’m so excited that
I probably won’t sleep for two days,” said
the low-key Hamilton, the seventh first-time
major championship winner in the last eight Grand Slam stagings.
Not that he slept much before a final round
during which he professed to be “calm” throughout. He didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. Sunday and got up around 8. The same thing happened when he won the Honda. He got up in the middle of the night there and did laundry. “Nerves,” Jacque said. “You’re just thinking so much, you can’t sleep.”
Saturday night he sounded like a man wondering what he was doing with a 54-hole lead by one over Els and two over Masters champion Mickelson, U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen and the previous week’s Scottish Open victor, Thomas Levet. “I’ve played so bad for so long, it’s very strange to be
sitting in here, commenting on my golf,” he said. “Usually when I’m commenting on it, it’s to my wife and kids, and it’s usually in an angry tone.”
Hamilton learned to win in Japan. He collected 11 trophies there since 1992, including four last year. But he didn’t expect much coming here because in 14 starts since the Honda he had missed six cuts and hadn’t finished in the top 20. Nor did his Tour rankings bode well: 444
444 153rd in driving accuracy, 136th in greens in regulation and 167th in ball-striking.
“I’m sure there is no one in this (interview) room that would expect me to win, at least before the tournament started, and probably not too many expect it to happen tomorrow,” he said Saturday.
You could call him the pro from Oquawka (means “yellow banks”), Oklahoma (his college), Okinawa and the Outskirts of Dallas. But now he’s known hereabouts as the “Champion Golfer of the Year,” someone who walked around Royal Troon with seven “lucky coins” in his pocket. Though he holed a 121-yard sand wedge shot from the rough for eagle 2 on the 405-yard seventh hole in the second round, much more than luck was involved in Hamilton’s triumph at a club whose motto is (ital) tam arte quam marte, (end ital) Latin for “as much by skills as by strength.”
Hamilton sculpted his 10-under-par 71-67-67-69–274 and the grand achievement of his life with more skill than strength. He won mainly because of his short-game wizardry –he averaged 27.3 putts per round –and a conservative, safety-first strategy that often called for driving underneath Troon’s penal fairway bunkers with a long iron or the hybrid club (bent from 17 to 14 degrees) that replaced his 3-wood two months ago. “It’s a lot easier to hit a 5-iron onto the green than it is to hit a 170-yard lob shot out of one of the pot bunkers,” the low-ball hitter said.
Hamilton used the Sonartec hybrid about five times each round for driving and chipping. The last usage was particularly brilliant. Fifteen yards shy of the green and some 100 feet from the pin, he made a marvelous stroke with it to set up his winning 2-foot putt on the last hole.
“I’ve always been blessed with good hand-eye coordination,” Hamilton said. “I feel my penmanship is nice and neat, people can read it. I don’t know how that translates to golf. But my hands have always been very good to me, whether it be chipping or putting.”
By all accounts, Hamilton is a range rat, one who chose practicing till dark over watching Japanese television in his hotel room. It was on a range at last month’s Buick Classic that he put that hand-eye prowess on display during an ad-libbed clinic that captivated the audience. He called a young man out of the gallery, stacked two balls on a tee, and popped the top ball 20 feet high when hitting the bottom one with a sand wedge. He paid the kid $5 when he caught the ball in his cap.
At Troon, he embraced links golf, landing shots short of greens and running them up probably more often than anyone else in the field. It is a style that falls under the U.B.E. brand: Ugly But Effective.
“I enjoy playing kind of ugly golf,” Hamilton said. “If you’ve got 200 yards, it’s usually a 5-, maybe a 6-iron, where over here you can take a 3- or 4-iron and just chip it and run it up on the green. That’s what I call ugly golf. I’m usually pretty good at ugly golf, unfortunately.”
Hamilton learned the game playing till dark at nine-hole Hend-Co Hill in Biggsville, Ill., pop. 500, near the Mississippi River. Jacque remembers him dreaming there as a teen. “He’d make a putt and say, ‘This one is to win a major against a name player,’ ” she said. “I used to snicker at him.”
It was back in those days that Norma Jean, the circus elephant, came to town and never left. Norma Jean died when lightning struck a metal leash, and, with permission from the state of Illinois, she was buried under a tombstone in the town square. “Swear to God,” said Hamilton, whose father, Kent, owns a corner grocery in Oquawka.
After college, the self-taught Hamilton would be hardened by ups and downs in Asia, times that make him appreciative now. The language barrier was such that Hamilton once ordered dinner and was served pumpkin pie first. His golf suffered to the point that he contemplated quitting. One winter he couldn’t afford to go to Florida, so he practiced in the cold, icy conditions of Illinois. “He’d find a patch of grass or take out his mat,” Jacque said. But then he won the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit in 1992, earned a ticket to riches in Japan and forged a career that has mirrored Vaquero neighbor Brian Watts, who lost the 1998 British Open in a playoff. Then, Hamilton finally got through PGA Tour Q-School on his eighth try last fall.
“I don’t know how to do too much other than play golf,” Hamilton said. “That’s probably the reason I stuck it out.”
Until Hamilton overcame a sore back most of the week and emerged as the sixth consecutive American to win at Troon, the Open was marked by others who stuck out for various reasons.
David Duval, the 2001 Open champion who shot 83-82 at the U.S. Open in his lone start of the year, flew to Troon but withdrew Wednesday night because of a bad back. No Americans cracked the first-round top 10 for the first time since 1959. The same day, Els licked the Postage Stamp (123-yard eighth) with an ace, and iconoclastic Englishman Ian Poulter, he of the screaming hair and outfits, began his fashion parade of a week by wearing British Union Jack flag trousers and declaring there are “too many boring” dressers in golf. He would follow two days later with numerous pink accents – beret, knee socks, shoelaces and shoe stripes.
Skip Kendall – who needed reattachment surgery after accidentally cutting off a “big piece” of his left forefinger while slicing a frozen bagel at last year’s Memorial Tournament – assumed the midway lead with a 66 but fell five strokes back with a third-day 75. Saturday also was the day moody Troon home boy Colin Montgomerie, after missing a short putt at No. 18 for the second consecutive day, ranted about having a joyless, “horrible” job even though the galleries provided him with a daily lovefest and he has earned more than $33 million playing golf, not counting appearance fees and endorsements. (Can someone please slip Monty a dose of Duval’s love fog or Goosen’s calm?)
Sunday began with a fast, furious rush of hole-outs for eagles and birdies by several leaders over a 10-minute stretch. Honk if you didn’t hole a bunker shot, chip in or roll in a bomb. Tiger Woods pulled within three of the lead until his 2004 tendency of blocking shots right led to bogeys at Nos. 11 and 12, leaving him without a victory in his last nine majors after winning seven of the previous 11. In a stunning twist of events, there finally seems to be a rivalry in golf’s majors, but Woods isn’t involved (read: Els-Mickelson).
Mickelson showed again that his improved preparation and play is suited to majors, for he has held the sole lead on the last nine of all three this year in finishing 1-2-3 at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, respectively. He contended at the British for the first time after having only one previous top-20 finish. He made only one bogey in his last 55 holes, but it was costly. The 4-foot miss at No. 13 dropped him out of the lead to stay and effectively put him one stroke out of the playoff.
That left Hamilton and Els in the last twosome in front of a gallery so pro-Els that Hamilton caddie Levin said of the occasional planes taking off from nearby Prestwick airport, “That’s the best part. You don’t have to hear ‘Go Ernie’ when the jets go over.”
Els drove right into trouble on Nos. 10 and 11, where he faced thigh-high, baseball-type swings. But he managed a miraculous par from a gorse bush on the latter – the famed, 490-yard Railway Hole, the course’s toughest – and stayed within two. Els pulled to within one on a 45-foot birdie putt at 13, but Hamilton went two up again on a 30-foot chip-in at 14.
“Todd gets a little cocky when he plays his buddies at home,” said Levin, a 17-year Tour caddie on the bag since February only because Hamilton’s regular caddie, Jeff Mulberry, has had visa problems getting into the United States from Canada. “Before he putts he asks, ‘Do you like apples?’ and after he makes the putt, he’ll say, ‘How do you like them apples?’ So when he chipped in, I said, ‘How do you like them apples?’ ”
Els would pull to within one after birdies from 10 and 12 feet, respectively, at Nos. 16 and 17. He actually had an uphill, right-to-left 10-foot birdie try at No. 18 to win after Hamilton went from the right rough to the left rough to a two-putt bogey. But Els missed the clincher to the left. He then would miss the green left on the third playoff hole, the 222-yard 17th, and missed a 12-foot par putt to fall a shot back. And after Hamilton’s brilliant chip at the last, Els had an 18-footer from a similar line as his first time through and again missed left. Coming on the heels of a second at the Masters and a final-round 80 at the U.S. Open, the loss left him feeling empty again.
“Right now I’m thinking of the putt on the 72nd hole,” said Els, the only player to shoot four Open rounds in the 60s twice and yet not win either time. “That’s the putt I’m going to be thinking about for a while.”
The Hamiltons, meanwhile, are thinking about moving into their new, 6,800-square-foot Vaquero home in September. One welcome problem involves a revision in decorating.
“Originally the Honda trophy was going to go by the door under the light,” Jacque Hamilton said. “Now we’ll have to move that one over.” m