Newcomer Curtis steals show at 2003 Open

Ben Curtis kisses the Claret Jug after winning the 2003 British Open

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Torn and discarded, they were left to blow in the English winds that Sunday evening eight Julys ago. Whether they came to rest in majestic sand dunes that serve to confound challengers to Royal St. George’s or whether they eventually settled somewhere in the English Channel, we’ll never know.

We only know that they were leads to stories that were ready to be told, then suddenly couldn’t.

• • • 

SANDWICH, England – The Great Dane, he is. He’s not too bad of an escape artist, either.

Thomas Bjorn is his name, and today he holds the Claret Jug because of steady play throughout and deft recovery efforts at the end of yesterday’s fourth round. Having found himself in bunkers thanks to errant tee shots at the par-4 15th and par-3 16th, Bjorn each time managed to save par and protect a final round of 2-under 69 at Royal St. George’s.

Though yet another warm and sultry day blanketed this massive links along the English Channel, Bjorn stood frozen with joy after tapping in to complete his 72-hole journey at 3-under 281 to score a two-stroke victory.

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As Ben Curtis (left) addresses the gallery after his victory, Thomas Bjorn (center) and Vijay Singh were left to ponder the jug that got away.

• • •

SANDWICH, England – Seemingly in an incomprehensible slump, given that he had failed to win any of the previous four major championships, Tiger Woods yesterday withstood the heat along the English Channel and used the opportunity to brush aside the critics who pointed out that he had never come from behind to win one of golf’s big shows.

Instead, the world’s No. 1 player birdied three of the first seven holes, then played flawless golf on Royal St. George’s demanding closing stretch. The end result was a 3-under 68 that provided Woods – who had begun the day two behind Thomas Bjorn – a 2-under 282 total and his second triumph in the British Open.

• • •

SANDWICH, England – This time, his major championship victory was not greeted by a rainbow. But torrents of tears did come down as Davis Love III stood on the 18th green at Royal St. George’s yesterday and held the Claret Jug so tightly that it appeared as if he’d never let it go.

One behind Thomas Bjorn to start the day, Love avoided the slow start that he had feared, shot 2-under 69 and with a 2-under 282 total captured the elusive British Open in his 17th try.

• • •

SANDWICH, England – Adding yet another chapter to his rags-to-riches golf saga, Vijay Singh yesterday completed an impressive comeback from a first-round 75 and in the process got three-quarters of the way to the career Grand Slam.

Having been tied for 54th after Thursday, the 40-year-old Singh played Royal St. George’s inward holes in level par – including a crucial par-save at the par-3 16th – and with a 3-under 68 finished at 2-under 282 to add the British Open to a resume that includes a PGA Championship and Masters.

• • •

Good stories, each and every one, and given the lofty stature each of those men took into the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s – Woods was No. 1, Love No. 4, Singh No. 6, Bjorn 49th – victory would have been critically acclaimed.

So what happened to render those leads no good? Golf is what happened, because onto such a star-studded stage meandered a player so new, he was playing in his first major and in only his 14th tournament of his PGA Tour rookie season. Ben Curtis, 26, once had been the top-ranked amateur in the world, but entering the week at Royal St. George’s he was No. 396 in the pro universe.

That he shot 72-72-70 to get to 1-over 214 and within two of Bjorn’s 54-hole lead was perhaps notable only to those who embrace provincial ties at such tournaments, but to very few others in the media. No, Curtis was an unknown commodity against a full complement of world-class stars. Woods, Love and Singh were major champions and in good form.

Woods had won his previous start, the Western Open, for his fourth triumph of the season. Love had won three times already that season. Singh had added two more victories to his career total and also shot 63 at the U.S. Open. Bjorn had come into the British Open on the strength of a T-16 at the European Open and a T-12 at the French Open.

Talent was all over the leaderboard – Love one behind Bjorn, Curtis tied with Woods, Singh, and even two other quality names, Sergio Garcia and Kenny Perry.

Heck, “even Phillip Price, who I played with, was ranked high,” Curtis said, and his memory serves him well. Price was No. 45 in the world that week and sitting only three shots behind Bjorn.

“But I was trying hard not to focus on that,” Curtis said. “I just wanted to think about my game.”

Eight years later and on the eve of the British Open’s return to Royal St. George’s, most of the key players from 2003 agree on one thing: If only they could go back and have another crack at it, things would have ended with their hands around a Claret Jug.

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Ben Curtis holes out on the 12th hole Sunday.

Only Curtis would choose to leave things untouched . . . even if he didn’t quite understand how the picture was taking shape around him. After all, his midround burst of speed – birdies at 7, 9, 10 and 11 – had given him the lead, before bogeys at the 14th, 15 and 17th swung it back to Bjorn.

So sure was Curtis that someone else was about to win, “I thought it was for second, or third, at the worst,” Curtis said about the 10-footer he had for par at the 72nd hole. “I figured if I missed, I’d get fourth or fifth, but I could perhaps keep my card. Basically, (that’s) what I was thinking.”

Somehow, the 10-footer fell, par at the 18th was secured, and Curtis basked in the glow of a 2-under 69, which would be one of just 12 sub-70 rounds. He had done himself proud, though he couldn’t understand what this voice was saying.

“As I walked off the green, I remember someone saying, ‘You’re tied for the lead,’ ” Curtis said. “I thought to myself, ‘What the hell is he talking about? How am I tied for the lead?’ ”

Curtis learned in the scorer’s hut that those marquee names behind him had all stumbled coming in.

Singh? Having played the front in 3 under to get to 2 under for the tournament, he had a golden chance to win his first Claret Jug. Only bogeys at 10, 13 and 16, against a birdie at 14, left him level par, one behind Curtis.

Love? Sadly, Royal St. George’s front holes jumped up to toss him into a hole. Just one behind to start the day, Love opened with bogeys on three of his first four. Eight years later, the memory still stings.

“We were just talking about how so many guys could have won,” Love said at this year’s Memorial Tournament. “But I got off to too bad of a start,” and though he played the back in 2 under, Love finished two behind Curtis.

Woods? There is an indelible image of him whipping open the door to the scorer’s hut and making a dash to his courtesy car, which caddie Steve Williams had waiting. Having pushed to 1 under for the tournament with a birdie at the par-5 14th, he would have forced a tie with four pars. Instead, he bogeyed Nos. 15 and 17, and a few weeks later he conceded that this was one of the only majors he thought that he let get away.

Time, however, has tempered his disappointment. “I had my chances, but I couldn’t convert some putts at the end,” he said. “It’s never easy winning a major, and I had a few breaks that didn’t go my way.”

Then there was Bjorn, and let’s face it: “There’s no doubt about it. Only one guy should have won the Claret Jug (that year),” said Billy Foster, who caddied for Bjorn that week.

When he mentioned at the 15th tee that he had a three-stroke lead, Bjorn heard his caddie say, “Focus on what you’re doing, Thomas.”

The drive at 15 was tugged left, the tee shot at 16 pushed right, then the crushing blow to complete the collapse – Bjorn bogeyed 17. Four over for three holes. A three-stroke lead was now a one-shot deficit, and in a warm, pulsating sun, Curtis watched the last of the challenges fizzle. He was free to accept the oldest trophy in major-championship golf.

Not since Francis Ouimet 90 years earlier had a player won in his first appearance in a major championship.

And though it’s true that heralded names tossed away shots over Royal St. George’s inward nine and thus left the Claret Jug there for Curtis’ embrace, it’s just as true that the quiet kid from Ohio had done what others couldn’t do. Of the top nine names on the leaderboard through 54 holes, only one broke 70 on Sunday – and it wasn’t Bjorn (72) or Woods (71) or Love (72) or Singh (70).

It was Curtis (69), shockingly new, stunningly fun.

“I feels like a long time ago,” Curtis said. “But at the same time, it feels like yesterday. It’s gone by so fast.”

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