- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

Ben Curtis has waited nearly three years to back up his stunning British Open title. One extra day at TPC at Avenel certainly isn’t going to try his patience.

The 2003 British Open champion continued his record-setting rout of the field at the Booz Allen Classic yesterday, stretching his final-round lead to eight strokes with just seven holes to play before the day’s second set of thunderstorms forced the suspension of play at 6:24 p.m.

“It’s not easy, but obviously I’m playing well, so I’m pretty comfortable and pretty confident,” said the 29-year-old Curtis, one of 46 players who will return to the course at 8 a.m. today to complete fourth-round play. “I don’t want to go to sleep tonight thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got it won.’ I’ve got to come out tomorrow morning, hit fairways and greens, give myself some chances and stick to my gameplan.”

Though Curtis might not be holding the crystal, everyone on the property already has conceded victory to the Columbus, Ohio, native. No player in the game’s recent history has ever blown such a massive margin. And despite a spot of trouble at the 12th, where Curtis will resume play this morning after blocking his approach into the water, Curtis showed no cracks in his constitution yesterday.

Beginning the day six hours later than expected after heavy rains flooded the 6,987-yard, par-71 layout and pushed back tee times, Curtis quickly expanded his 5-shot lead over Brett Quigley. After a ticklish 10-foot par save at the first, Curtis carded birdies at Nos. 2, 5, 6 and 9 to reach 4 under for the day and 23 under for the tournament.

His nearest pursuer, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington (15 under through 13 holes), is eight strokes back and quickly running out of holes. And despite Curtis’ hiccup at 12, where he’s almost guaranteed his first bogey in 44 holes, the only real drama left for the lame-duck event is Curtis’ assault on the event’s scoring record (21-under, 263), which is held jointly by Billy Andrade (1991), Jeff Sluman (1991) and Adam Scott (2004).

“I’m not going to think that way, because somebody could birdie the last four holes, and the next thing you know it’s a four-shot lead,” Curtis said. “If I make double bogey on No. 12, it’s a whole new ballgame.”

That scenario is highly unlikely, particularly given the way Curtis has controlled the event from the first round forward, opening with a 62 and waltzing toward a wire-to-wire victory with only one bogey on his card through 65 holes.

Frankly, the week has given the golf world a long look at the promising player it glimpsed only briefly at St. George’s, where Curtis swiped the claret jug from among a handful of high-profile stars without ever truly standing in the stressful Sunday spotlight of a major. Though the potentially defunct event at Avenel is the Rosie O’Donnell to a major’s Elin Nordegren, Curtis has more than proved his mettle in the moment this week, hauling the lead around since Thursday, sleeping on it each night and then expanding it each day.

If the event does indeed temporarily disappear after the final putt drops today, perhaps its final flourish won’t have been in vain. If no sponsor can be found for next season’s Fall Series date, at least the event’s death will have coincided with Curtis’ resurrection.

“Hopefully for me it’s a step in the right direction, where I can [build] on it and maybe get a few more wins,” said Curtis, who entered the week branded a one-hit wonder but will exit it as a Ryder Cup outsider whose record now clearly outstrips those of more ballyhooed U.S. twentysomethings Charles Howell, Lucas Glover and Vaughn Taylor.

“Hopefully, this will be the start of something good for me.”

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