Quiet Curtis evades media attention

Ben Curtis hits from the ninth tee during the second round of the Players Championship.

Ben Curtis hits from the ninth tee during the second round of the Players Championship.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Had you gone strictly by the golf played and the scores registered, you never would have understood the scenario.

The guy at 4 over, a score that was going to earn him an early exit? Well, he commanded the undivided attention of some two dozen reporters.

But the guy at 5 under, a score that would perhaps have him within three of the lead entering the weekend of The Players Championship? Well, he wore a headset to conduct a radio interview at the request of the one media person who seemed interested in him.

Oh, hold on there. A trio of other media types were also paying attention to the golfer with the headset, but only to joke with him and try to disrupt his radio interview.

Crazy, eh? Rory McIlroy shoots 72-76, birdies just two of his last 27 holes, and pretty much looks lackluster and befuddled by the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and yet he holds court. Ben Curtis, meanwhile, charges to the finish line with birdies on four of his final seven holes and pretty much continues to be one of the hottest golfers on the planet but it’s as if he’s invisible.

Curtis merely smiled. He was the toast of the golf world nearly nine years ago, back when he won the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, but Curtis has slipped back into virtual anonymity since then and even when he tears it up over a three-week stretch, he knows the media will still gravitate to the stars like McIlroy.

Let the media have the personalities; a few weeks shy of his 35th birthday and midway through his 10th PGA Tour season, Curtis is content to focus on numbers.

And right now, the numbers are quite favorable, thank you very much.

Having prevailed in a torture chamber called TPC San Antonio a few weeks ago to win for the first time since 2006, Curtis used that as a springboard. He finished T-13 in New Orleans, then T-5 at the Wells Fargo Championship, and now he’s put himself into contention at The Players Championship.

Fourteen rounds, seven of them in the 60s, and a tidy 37-under cumulative. That’s the sort of stuff heralded, marquee names produce. But the thing is, even when they don’t – as McIlroy showed the last two days – the heralded, marquee names overshadow the Curtises of the PGA Tour world. But again, the quiet kid from Stow, Ohio, isn’t about to complain.

“We need McIlroy and we need Tiger Woods to generate a buzz out here,” he said.

Curtis’ stretch of play is nothing short of amazing, especially given the fact that he started this season without full exempt status. Having finished 149th on the money list in 2011, Curtis before April had only gotten into the opposite-field events. He then missed the cut at his first regular tournament, the Shell Houston Open, before cashing in at the Valero Texas Open.

Stunning stuff, but for the simplest of reasons: “Putting. Just making putts, seeing the putts go in,” he said.

Having been shown a video of his 2003 win at Royal St. George’s, Curtis saw that his right hand was pulled more over his left hand, a stronger position. He went with that at Valero and in three weeks he has piled up $1,469,730, which is more than what he earned in the previous two seasons combined.

But forget the turnaround from 2010-2011; Curtis was more excited about the Friday turnaround that kept things from getting away from him.

“I was driving it all over the map,” he said.

A spot-on assessment, because Curtis hit just two fairways on his front nine, going wide left at one, then bad hooks at two, four, and five. He was wide right at seven, then at 10 and 11 he missed right.

What to do?

“I got more focused on a target, rather than the whole fairway,” he said. “Rhythm kicked in, and the birdie at 12 relaxed me.”

Consider that an understatement, because Curtis followed with birdies at the par-4 14th, par-5 16th, and par-4 18th. The fact that he birdied holes ranged toughest (No. 18) and second-toughest (No. 14) speaks volumes for the ball-striking prowess Curtis is flashing these days.

But again, Curtis brings it back to putting.

“Golf is a game of confidence,” he said. “If you go out there and hit 15 greens and know you’re going to shoot 1 under, that’s not a good feeling.”

And lately, Curtis has avoided those situations with regularity.

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