- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

SANDWICH, England — Golf’s cream rose to the top Saturday afternoon at Sandwich. In yesterday’s finale at the 132nd British Open, it spoiled.

Four of the game’s elite players staggered down the stretch at Royal St. George’s yesterday, virtually handing the claret jug to unknown Ben Curtis.

“Oh, man. That’s about all I can say right now,” Curtis said after becoming the first player since Francis Ouimet (1913 U.S. Open) to collect a major title in his first Slam start. “I came in here this week just trying to play the best I could and hopefully make the cut and play on the weekend.

“And, obviously, I did that and then went out there and probably played the best weekend of my life.”

There’s no “probably” about it. Curtis, a 26-year-old PGA Tour rookie (via Q-School) who as recently as last year was scratching out a living on the low-rent Hooters Tour, never had finished in the top 10 of a PGA Tour event before yesterday.

In fact, he was only present at Sandwich because his best finish of the season by miles (tie for 13th at the Western Open) earned him one of the British Open’s final exempt slots. His greatest golfing achievement before yesterday’s stunner was reaching the semifinals of the 1999 U.S. Amateur.

Before arriving at Sandwich last Saturday, he had played exactly two rounds of links golf in his life. He was ranked No. 396 in the world. And he never had seen his Open caddie, Andy Sutton, whom he borrowed from the European Tour.

Truth is, calling Curtis an Open dark horse at the beginning of the week wouldn’t have been fair to the term. He was more like a three-legged donkey. But 72 holes later on the drunken 7,106-yard, par-71 links, this outrageously unlikely Cinderfella was the only man in red figures.

“Right now many people are probably saying, ‘Well, he doesn’t belong there,’” said Curtis, who finished at 1 under (283) to nip Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh by a stroke and Tiger Woods and Davis Love by two. “But I knew in my mind that I did, so that’s all that matters.”

Under different circumstances, perhaps it would be easy to celebrate Curtis’ victory as a spectacular blow for unknowns in all sports. But the 132nd British Open was more memorable for the failures of others than the success of young Curtis.

Bjorn, Singh, Woods and Love all had ample opportunity to clip Curtis during his back-nine swoon. But with the rookie floundering in front of them like a wounded lamb, none of the vets had the gumption to play major wolf.

Curtis, who began the day brilliantly by carding six birdies over the opening 11 holes to reach 5 under and claim a two-stroke cushion, started behaving like a first-timer over Sandwich’s relentless closing holes. Thanks to a series of stress-induced hooks, Curtis bogeyed Nos. 12, 14, 15 and 17, predictably attempting to gag away the Open.

His bogey on 17 left him three in arrears of Bjorn, who was standing on the 15th teebox at 4 under. But with the stage perfectly set for the stoic Dane’s first major uprising after a handful of near-misses, Bjorn unraveled in spectacular fashion.

A bunkered drive at the 15th cost him a stroke. And then complete disaster struck at the 16th.

Bjorn’s punched 7-iron at the par-3 16th rode the wind just to the right of the perfect line and kicked into a pin-high greenside bunker.

His first blast from the bunker failed to carry the ridge on which the pin was perched, and the ball rolled cruelly back down the slope and into the bunker. His second bid from the sand carried slightly farther onto the green but still failed to reach the shelf, again plunging back to his feet.

His third effort and subsequent putt were perfect, but the double-bogey damage was done, and Bjorn had been dramatically dragged back to 1 under.

“I had my good breaks this week, but I got a bad one there and lost the Open on that 16th hole,” said Bjorn, who, still reeling from this miscue, shoved a 5-foot par putt at the 17th to seal his fate. “There has been a certain dramatic improvement in my game, but it is going to be a tough few days now.”

It will be easier for the others who failed less spectacularly — but not much. In search of his third major title, Singh came to the 16th at 1 under but followed Bjorn into the bunker and couldn’t offset the bogey with a birdie over the last two holes.

“I had my chances and blew it,” the 40-year-old Fijian said. “There’s no excuse for that.”

Love, who made a comeback after yet another slow start at Sandwich, also saw his British bid go awry at the 16th.

After a beautifully shaped punch shot, the 1997 PGA champion lacked only an 8-footer to join Curtis at 1 under. But just as he had done for most of the day, Love missed badly and then added a sloppy goodbye bogey at the 17th.

“If I’d putted well, I would have won. If I had hit a few more good shots, I would have won,” Love said. “Thomas, Tiger and Vijay are all saying the same thing.”

Woods, the world’s No.1 player and heretofore the best clutch putter on the planet, watched his short stick betray him time and again yesterday. Squandering a series of excellent approaches, Woods missed a staggering total of six back-nine putts inside of 20 feet (Nos. 12, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 18), any two of which would have landed him in a playoff.

“The only putt I made was on 14,” said Woods, now winless in his last five major starts. “It’s hard to reflect on it right now. It’s too close to the situation.”

That left Curtis, who holed a testy 10-foot par save at the last well in front of his higher-profile competitors, as the last man standing at Sandwich.

“I was shaking in my boots, obviously, but I was just out there very focused on what I had to do,” said Curtis, who, coincidentally, is from Kent, Ohio. “I knew I needed the putt on 18 to have a chance. … I’m just a normal guy with a lot of talent.

“My life is going to change from today, but I’m looking forward to it and a lot of great challenges ahead of me.”

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