Ben Curtis’ stunning upset victory at the 2003 British Open sank in on the airplane ride home. The seating arrangement in first class was the reason. “Candace was in one seat,” Curtis said of his then-fiancee, now wife. “The Claret Jug was in the middle seat. And then there was me. I realized then that we really did it.”
Until then, Curtis had never played in a major championship, nor had he scored a top-10 finish in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event. He was listed as high as a 750-1 shot. He was ranked No. 396 in the world. But the rookie found a way to handle the bumpy ride of Royal St. George’s and beat a final-round leaderboard that included Tiger Woods, Thomas Bjorn, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III, Kenny Perry and Sergio Garcia.
The plane ride home to Ohio the next day drove home the point that his life was changing. The pilot invited Candace and him into the cockpit before departure. Applause broke out when the pilot announced the British Open champion was on board.
“My notoriety went from zero to 12 immediately, and now it’s about 7 or 8,” Curtis said.
Two weeks after doing his Big Ben act in England, he learned more about his new celebrity status. Candace sent him to the grocery store to pick up one item, but 45 minutes later he came home empty handed. He triple-bogeyed the simple errand because he was besieged by autograph seekers and other locals who just wanted to talk. In the process, he forgot what he was supposed to buy.
“I think it was milk,” he says now. “But when I came home, she understood.”
Curtis knows it won’t be easy when he defends his Open title July 15-18 at Royal Troon in Scotland, where he played eight holes in mid-May. He visited Troon as part of a corporate outing in which he hit tee shots at the No. 8 Postage Stamp hole for each foursome. Before playing an event in Germany the next week, he also visited St. Andrews, where he shot even par, and Carnoustie, where he went 4 under.
But Curtis also knows his game and confidence are improving. Entering the Cialis Western Open, he had made the cut in all four of his Tour starts since the Masters – T-25 at the MCI Heritage, T-35 at the Wachovia Championship, T-8 at the Memorial and 30th at the U.S. Open. He started 68-66 at the MCI, 68-69 at Memorial and 68 at the Open. The Memorial was his first Tour top 10 in the United States.
“My game’s coming around nicely,” he said. “And my confidence is growing because I’m putting a lot better. At least I’m walking off the course saying I made three putts outside of 15 feet. Before I wasn’t making anything outside of 5 (feet).”
Curtis is a grinder at his best when par matters, and par matters most in major championships. His strengths are accurate driving and a creative short game. Those attributes suit links golf. Understanding that lessens the shock of his breakthrough triumph.
“I think every Open is going to suit him because he doesn’t hit his drives with much sidespin,” said Curtis’ regular caddie, Andy Sutton, whom he met when they joined forces at Royal St. George’s. “And he has great imagination with his short game.”
Sutton said he’s excited about Curtis’ upside over the next few years. Curtis is shy and humble, but he’s also loaded with self-belief and is intent on having a positive attitude. He was America’s top amateur before turning pro, and he won the Open when no one else thought he could. Even his caddie.
“Being the pessimist I am, I thought he was going to blow up,” Sutton said. “I’ve caddied for good players and I’ve been pessimistic every time. You start thinking good things, that’s when things go bad for you.”
That said, Sutton sees an improved Curtis from a year ago, someone who’s getting better all the time. And he’s doing it without the aid of gurus.
“No swing coach, no sports psychologist, no nothing,” Sutton said. “That tells you how big his self-belief is.”
Curtis says he goes it alone because he learned the game through trial and error while playing by himself. Grinding in search of what works, he called it.
He’s not only used to self-reliance, he’s grown accustomed to periodic mentions that he might be a one-week wonder. He even faced a one-week wonder question at his post-Open news conference, but he says such doubts don’t bother him because his name always will be engraved on the trophy.
“I understand where they’re coming from, but it would be different if I wasn’t making cuts,” Curtis said. “They could’ve said it until the MCI, but not since.
“Even after I won I felt I wouldn’t be surprised if it took 2-3 years before I win again, or 2-3 months. There’s a learning curve involved. It’s just a matter of time.”
He says the best part of the victory is that he can plan his schedule during his five-year exemption. The triumph also led to a lucrative endorsement contract with Reebok, for whom he wears shirts bearing the logo of the NFL team in the area of the tournament he’s playing. He also has agreed to a long-term extension of his Titleist deal.
This year, he also reunited with caddie Sutton, and that’s not bad, either. Sutton carries his bag, and an affection for his boss as well.
“He’s so frigging nice you fall in love with him,” Sutton said. “It almost sounds corny to say someone’s that nice, but I don’t know of one person he’s knocked.”
Unless you count KO’ing that Who’s Who leaderboard at Sandwich.