- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ben Curtis is officially putting a beatdown on the Booz Allen Classic.

For the third consecutive day, the former British Open champion crushed the course and the competition at TPC at Avenel, piling on a third-round 67 to set a new 54-hole tournament scoring record (19-under 194) and claim a commanding five-stroke lead heading into today’s finale.

“It feels great,” said Curtis, who stands five clear of Brett Quigley and seven clear of the rest of the flagging field. “I’ve been working hard on the game this year, and it’s finally paying off. I got lucky this week, as well. I made a few putts and got going in the right direction.”

The 29-year-old Columbus, Ohio, native might have caught a few breaks with the flat stick early in the week, but there was absolutely no luck involved in his round yesterday. The only storm that descended on Avenel yesterday, Curtis hit all 18 greens on the 6,987-yard, par-71 layout. The resulting 67 was about the highest possible score he could have carded. Two of his four birdies (Nos. 6 and 13) were of the two-putt variety and a third came from kickaway distance at the fifth hole. If he had holed just a couple of the six other putts that eluded him from inside 18 feet, the boys at Booz Allen might have just cut him a check, handed him the crystal and canceled fourth-round play.

Today’s likely victory lap will start at 9 a.m., as once again the PGA Tour has decided to bump up starting times in anticipation of nasty weather. The early start makes a Curtis collapse even less likely by eliminating the restless hours leaders customarily have to cope with before mid-afternoon tee times.

But if there ever has been a course custom-made for a comeback, it’s Avenel, where the combination of soft greens, pristine conditioning and preferred lies yielded a purist-galling third-round scoring average of 69.77, the lowest at the event since 1991.

“With the greens being as pure as they are, if anyone gets on a roll with a putter, you can literally birdie every hole out here,” Quigley said after a third-round 67. “The greens are perfect, the greens are fast and we’re playing it up. … I don’t expect Ben to back up, but a 62 or 63 is definitely out there.”

If anybody can catch Curtis, perhaps it’s Quigley, the 36-year-old journeyman from Devon, Mass., who is in the midst of a career run of form. Dating back to the Heritage Classic in April, Quigley is a total of 43-under par in his last 39 rounds of competitive golf, flirting with his first PGA Tour victory at the Heritage (T5), Colonial (T4) and Barclays (T3).

“I just can’t believe it’s taken me 10 years to figure this out,” said Quigley, who before this season was best known for being the nephew of Champions Tour iron man Dana Quigley. “You get on tour, and you play against guys you grew up watching, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Davis Love, all those guys. You make a bogey, and think, ‘Gosh, you can’t make a bogey on tour. You have got to play perfect.’

“Well, in reality, I can make a bogey,” he added. “I can make five bogeys and still shoot under par. I guess [the key for me] was relaxing on the golf course. … My game is a lot of birdies and bogeys.”

Quigley needs bunches of the former to make things interesting today. At least he’ll have Curtis in front of him, if it turns into a two-man, match-play tournament down the stretch.

“I like playing with Ben, knowing what I have to do tomorrow,” said Quigley, who swapped back-nine Sunday shots with Vijay Singh at Westchester two weeks ago before falling to him. “If I could get a few putts early, maybe I could get some heat on him, try to get within two or three shots and see what happens.”

Nobody knows exactly how Curtis will react to his front-runner status. He has played in the last group on Sunday twice before, falling to Jim Furyk in last year’s Western Open and Brad Faxon in last year’s Buick Championship. But Curtis didn’t hold the outright lead in either event, much less by five strokes. But going back to Curtis’ amateur resume, his record from the front is pretty impressive. A three-time All-American at Kent State, Curtis won consecutive Ohio Amateur titles (1999-2000) by 17 strokes each time.

Frankly, Curtis has dealt with a mountain of doubt — most of it external — since his shocking 2003 British Open victory. His father, Bob, a superintendent at a public course back in Columbus (Mill Creek) will say his son “probably won too fast, too early for his own good.”

Curtis sneaked up on the golf world at Royal St. George’s. And in return, the superstar’s unholy trinity of fame, fortune and expectation pounced on him before he was ready, before he was properly psychologically seasoned and girded.

Curtis isn’t sneaking up on anything at Avenel. He’s routing the field. And after three years of waiting and maturing, he finally looks ready for his second victory.

“It’s important for me to go out there and prove to myself that I can win again,” Curtis said. “There for a while I was having doubts. But I kept working hard and fighting through the mess I got myself into with my golf game. And now it seems to be going in the right direction.”

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