Unpredictable course gets unpredicted champ

British finds hidden jewel

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2003

SANDWICH, England A wacky week at the British Open held one final surprise, and it was the biggest of them all: Ben Curtis holding the claret jug.

An unknown PGA Tour rookie in his first major championship, Curtis outlasted Tiger Woods and a collection of All-Stars for perhaps the most stunning conclusion to a Grand Slam event in 90 years.

Despite four bogeys on the final seven holes, Curtis closed with a 2-under 69 and was the only player under par on the difficult links of Royal St. George's.

After making an 8-foot par putt on the final hole, the 26-year-old from Ohio waited to see if anyone could match him.

They all wilted.

First it was Thomas Bjorn, taking three shots to get out of a pot bunker on the 16th to surrender the lead.

Woods couldn't find the fairway down the stretch and let a perfect opportunity to capture another major fall away. Vijay Singh didn't make enough putts, and Davis Love III ran out of holes.

That left the oldest prize in golf a shiny claret jug in the possession of a guy who never had so much as a top 10 finish on the PGA Tour.

His best was two weeks ago at the Western Open, a tie for 13th that allowed him to qualify for the British Open.

No one gave him a chance, not against this lineup.

No one played better over four days on these brutal links north of the English Channel.

Curtis stepped inside a trailer and watched on television as Bjorn hit into the right rough on No. 18 and came up just short of the green. He went to the practice range in case the Dane made the putt to force a playoff.

The birdie putt to tie turned away from the cup, and Andrew Sutton, the local caddie whom Curtis hired a week ago, said, ''Ben, you're the Open champion.''

Curtis is believed to be the first player since Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open to win the first major championship he ever played.

There have been other surprises in the majors.

Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie four years ago when Jean Van de Velde collapsed on the final hole; John Daly winning the '91 PGA Championship as the ninth alternate; Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan in a playoff in the 1955 U.S. Open at Olympic Club.

Still, this ranks among the greatest shockers of all.

Ouimet was a 20-year-old who beat the greatest golfers of his time, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in a playoff outside Boston in 1913, a victory that made golf popular in America.

This one will give hope to the underdogs.

Bjorn's sloppy finish, especially the bunker shots on No. 16, dropped him to a 72 and into a tie for second with Singh at even-par 284.

Another stroke back was Woods, who bogeyed two of his final four holes for a 71, and Love, who missed two crucial birdie putts down the stretch.

''It's unbelievable,'' Curtis said. ''Honestly, just playing on the weekend would have been fine for me. I just kept trying to play along. You never know what's going to happen.''

What happened is that he has his name on the claret jug, alongside the best who ever played.

Curtis broke down as he tried to thank his family and fiance, then held the silver trophy up toward blazing blue skies over southeastern England as he composed himself.

Curtis learned the game of golf on a course built in rural Ohio by his grandfather, who died five months ago.

''He would have loved this. He's there, we just can't see him,'' Bob Curtis, the winner's father, said from the clubhouse at Millcreek Golf Course in tiny Ostrander.

Bob Curtis is the superintendent at Millcreek, and told of finding his 5-year-old son on the putting green in his pajamas.

Until this week, Curtis was mostly known for being a two-time Ohio State Amateur champion, along with Arnold Palmer and John Cook.

Not anymore. He earned more than $1.2 million, is exempt on the PGA Tour for the next five years and was introduced before thousands of stunned fans as the champion golfer of the year.

''Now, when my name is up on the scoreboard, I will feel like I belong,'' Curtis said. ''This is the grandest tournament of all. I'm very fortunate to be a winner with all the great names on that trophy Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones.''

Equally impressive: The guys he beat on a sun-baked afternoon at Royal St. George's, the links that takes away more than it gives.

No one felt the sting more than Bjorn.

A short birdie on the par-5 14th gave him a two-stroke lead at 4 under par, with Curtis three groups ahead and leaking oil.

Bjorn found a pot bunker off the tee and made bogey. His tee shot right of the pin on the par-3 16th the one place not to go caught the ridge and dropped into the bunker.

He blasted out over the lip, but the ball returned down the slope and into the sand. Another blast, same result. Bjorn finally got it out and made double bogey.

''I certainly feel like I deserve a little bit more than I got this week,'' Bjorn said. ''That's the way it is. You go on. But I'm sure it's going to be tough the next few days.''

Woods is now winless in the last five majors, although this was his best chance.

Despite missing fairways and greens, he was in great position as Bjorn and Curtis started giving back strokes. It ended when he came up short of the 17th green, ran his chip 12 feet by and missed the par putt.

''I put myself where I needed to be,'' Woods said. ''I just didn't make the putts.''

So ended a bizarre week.

It started Thursday with Woods losing a ball in the rough on his first tee shot. Bjorn was penalized two shots that day for grounding his club in the bunker after he didn't get out. Love hit a tee shot that was going out of bounds Friday until it caromed off a white stake.

And a guy ranked No. 396 in the world won the British Open.

Everyone said Royal St. George's was the most unpredictable links in golf. It got a champion no one could have predicted, either.

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