Everything he ever wanted was slipping away. Todd Hamilton knew that feeling intimately, too intimately, maybe, and more times than he cared to admit.
This time, it was happening below scudding clouds alongside the Irish Sea, with the British Open on the line. But it couldn't have felt all that different from all those other picture-postcard days spent trying to eke out a living playing golf on the other side of the Atlantic, or the other side of the world.
A player doesn't become a PGA Tour rookie at age 38, after all, without becoming familiar with disappointment. In Hamilton's case, there were seven failed attempts to get through the tour's qualifying school in Florida and California. Then there was the time, a dozen years ago, when the sponsors bankrolling his shot at the Asian tour were running out of patience and money.
''I knew I was a decent golfer. I knew I tried hard. I knew I worked hard,'' Hamilton said.
At the end of a day when he must have wondered a dozen times whether his reach would ever exceed his grasp, Hamilton was now sitting close enough to the silver claret jug to see his wide smile reflected in it.
''Sometimes I think what kept me back two things, really were I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and a lot of times I felt that in tournaments like this, if I happened to get into them, I didn't really feel that I belonged.
''So,'' he added, ''maybe all that will change now.''
Who knows where and when someone finally finds enough steel in his spine to stand up to failure.
Anybody who watched this Open unfold would answer that the place was Royal Troon and the time was at the end of a Scottish summer afternoon. Hamilton played ''military golf'' on the 72nd hole of regulation Sunday hitting it right, left, right, left before walking off with a bogey that let Ernie Els catch him and force a playoff. But that doesn't begin to tell Hamilton's story.
He could have folded at any point in the four-hole playoff and still acquitted himself honorably, much the way close pal and fellow American golfing expatriate Brian Watts did in losing a playoff to Mark O'Meara at the 1998 British Open.
But Hamilton spent too much time in too many far-flung places preparing himself for this moment to let that happen to him.
There were all those lonely weeks living in hotels, struggling with foreign languages and wondering whether his three young kids back home were learning to walk and talk without him. There were times when Hamilton played tournaments in Asia, where opponents' caddies, or their friends, flat-out cheated, bumping balls out of tough spots and trying to take money out of his pocket.
Stretching even further back were those days when Hamilton was a kid himself. He was so in love with golf that he went round and round a nine-hole course in a tiny west-central Illinois town his personal record was seven times in one day trying to master a maddening game.
''I'm kind of glad it worked out that way,'' he said after climbing into the lead at the end of the third round, ''having some struggles here and there and fighting back to achieve my dream.''
As it turned out, Hamilton's biggest fight was still in front of him. When he left Troon's aging clubhouse, Els was alongside and out ahead of them, players like Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Tiger Woods major winners all were collecting birdies.
This time, though, Hamilton turned out to be more sure-handed than any of them. He brushed aside one big name after another until only Els was left. At the third hole of the playoff, he made par to the South African's bogey, then ran a chip shot to within 2 feet of the hole at the last one for an even-nervier par to seal the win.
Hamilton bent over to pull the ball out of the cup, then stopped and took in the scene. The grandstands were packed with fans howling their admiration and thousands more cheered along the fairway, turning the 18th green into a roiling amphitheater of noise.
Hamilton celebrated along with them for a moment, then walked back to the hole and reached down for the ball. He grabbed and held on tight, certain at last that there was no chance this one was going to slip away.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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