- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

The golf world comes to Avenel to heal this week. After getting beaten up, down and sideways by pitiless Winged Foot, Ben Curtis says, the fairways in the Booz Allen “look like they’re 80 yards wide. The greens look huge. So you just kind of free-swing.”

Curtis free-swung his way to nine birdies and a career-low 62 yesterday in the first round of the Last Booz. That was a major improvement over last weekend’s miseries, when — lucky him — he got to stick around for the entire 72 holes and finished 19 over.

All around Avenel you see players licking their U.S. Open wounds — Ben Crane (23 over), Kenny Perry (21 over), Fred Funk (16 over), Charles Howell III (15 over). Other humbled entrants such as Lee Janzen, Rich Beem, Mark Brooks, Justin Leonard and D.C.’s own Olin Browne didn’t even make the cut at “the Foot” — which, at plus-9, left room for more than a few Category 5 disasters.

History, moreover, will record that defending champ Sergio Garcia and Chris DiMarco, late scratches in the Booz, also got mauled in Mamaroneck. Sergio blamed his no-show here on a bad back, but he might just as easily have lost the will to golf.

I’m beginning to wonder if our PGA Tour stop hasn’t missed the boat the last 20 years. Instead of wallowing in its second-class status, it should have embraced it, had fun with it. For instance, once it became clear the course was unpopular with players, the sponsors (Kemper/FBR/Booz) should have lobbied for the week-after-the-Open date and billed the tournament as “the TPC at Lourdes.” Better yet, they could have drained the pond guarding the 17th green, filled it with mineral water imported from Hot Springs and turned an otherwise unremarkable hole into “the Waters of Washington.”

Surely that would have attracted more of the marquee names. After the stress, strain and general humiliation of the Open, they could have loosened the knots in the backs of their necks by taking to the baths at Avenel. Imagine Garcia and DiMarco getting a good soak in at the end of each day, steam rising up around them. Heck, it’s probably just what Sergio needs for his aches and pains … and bruised ego.

As an added attraction, you could move up the tees, eliminate the rough, soften the greens and turn Avenel/Lourdes into a veritable get-well card. Come to D.C., shoot 58. Before long, I’m betting, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson would be fighting over the last towel in the cabana.

Alas, the opportunity has been lost. The Booz Allen is being moved to the fall for at least the short term — if, that is, a new sponsor can be found. At least Curtis is helping to give the event a proper sendoff; his 62, which featured not a single bogey, is just one off Howell’s course record.

Funny that Ben should jump out to the lead this week. After all, he won 2003 British Open pretty much the same way Geoff Ogilvy won U.S. Open on Sunday — sitting in the scorer’s hut, watching the other contenders make a mess of things.

“I didn’t actually [get to see the finish] until Tuesday night,” he said. “It was on the Golf Channel re-run, because I was on the plane home [Sunday]. There were a lot of similarities there, just how he won and how he came under the radar. A lot of emotions and memories came back.”

Curtis was more obscure than Ogilvy when he outplayed Thomas Bjorn, Vijay Singh and Woods in the final round at Royal St. George’s. He’d just turned 26, was ranked 396th in the world and had never placed in the top 10 on the PGA Tour. In the years since, though, he has essentially returned from whence he came. He’s never seriously threatened to win again and, indeed, would have had to go back to Qualifying School if his British title hadn’t earned him a five-year exemption.

The past six months have been a tad more encouraging. He’s made 10 of 14 cuts — up from eight of 24 last year and nine of 20 the year before; his best showings, however, have been T-20s at Bay Hill and the FBR Open.

“I feel like I’m playing like I did … in 2003,” he said. “Making a lot of cuts. Just haven’t put four rounds together.”

Perhaps that will happen here in the Last Booz. Or perhaps his 62 will be like David Duval’s 62 in ‘03 — a nice story … for a day. You’d think, at the very least, it would enable him to move up a few notches on the money list. He’s currently 142nd, light-years away from qualifying for the Tour Championship or any of the World Golf Championships.

“Everything was easy,” he said of his bogey-free round. “Hit every shot pretty much where I wanted to.”

If only he could have immersed himself in the baths of Avenel afterward.

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