TURNBERRY, Scotland (AP) — When Ben Curtis won the British Open on his first try, he seemed one of the most fluky major champions in golf history. Beyond family and friends, no one had ever heard of the guy.
It’s different now.
After a few rocky years trying to live up to his amazing debut at Royal St. George’s, Curtis has proved a worthy champion. He made the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He challenged for the PGA Championship. He finished in the top 10 at the last two British Opens, and he’s got his eyes on the claret jug again.
Curtis shot a bogey-free, 5-under 65 Thursday that left him one stroke behind leader Miguel Angel Jimenez after the opening round at Turnberry.
While he still has to pinch himself at times when he looks back on his 2003 triumph, the 32-year-old Curtis has no doubts about his ability to contend for a second major title.
“I’d like to think if I was in this position heading into Sunday that I’d be able to handle it well and go out there and play well,” he said.
Curtis didn’t have that sort of confidence six years ago when he was crowned the Open champion while whacking balls on the practice range, preparing for a possible playoff. Ranked No. 396 at the time, he wound up winning in regulation by one stroke over Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh.
The news was delivered to him by a fill-in caddie: “Ben, you’re the Open champion!”
Curtis kept the caddie but struggled trying to live up to being a major champion. He missed the cut the next three times he traveled across the Atlantic, and he wouldn’t win on the PGA Tour until 2006.
“You look back on it and you kind of have to pinch yourself every now and then to realize that, hey, I won the biggest tournament in the world on the first try,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen. It’s just weird that it happened to me. I was very fortunate. I just had a great attitude that week. To be honest, I was just happy to be there.”
Once he stopped worrying about expectations and let his talent take over, Curtis showed he was capable of being more than a journeyman who happened to put four magical days together at the best possible time.
He probably should have won last year’s PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, but ran out of steam while playing 36 holes on the final day. Curtis squandered a three-stroke lead with three bogeys in a four-hole stretch, finishing two shots behind winner Padraig Harrington in a tie for second with Sergio Garcia.
Still, the performance sent Curtis to the Ryder Cup for the first time, and he helped the Americans end a nine-year drought against the Europeans with a runaway win at Valhalla.
Also, Curtis has stepped up his play in the British Open, finishing eighth at Carnoustie in 2007 and seventh at Birkdale a year ago.
“The last couple of years have been good to me,” he said. “The big thing, I just love playing links golf, knowing that you have to control your irons pretty well and just keep the ball out of those fairway bunkers and kind of manage your way around the golf course. I like doing that a little bit.”
He did it just fine Thursday, taking advantage of the most un-British Open-like conditions along the craggy Scottish coast. The sun was out most of the day. It never rained. And the breeze barely rippled the flags above the grandstand.
Curtis had a couple of wayward shots, taking bogeys at the fourth and 10th holes. But he eagled the par-5 seventh and finished with four birdies in the final six holes.
Even with the pristine weather, Curtis was proud of his showing. He’d been struggling with his tee shots in practice and wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep the ball out of the tall, treacherous grass lining the fairways at Turnberry.
“To shoot 65 today, yeah, I was a little surprised, even as easy as it was playing,” he said. “I was just hoping to find a fairway.”
After posting the same score as 59-year-old Tom Watson, who led most of the day, Curtis was asked what he remembered about the famous “Duel in the Sun” on this very same course.
That day, in the final round of the 1977 British Open, Watson and Jack Nicklaus went head-to-head for the claret jug with no one else in contention. The Golden Bear – from Ohio, like Curtis – rolled in a 60-foot putt at No. 18 to give himself a chance, but Watson tapped in to preserve one of his five British Open titles.
So, Ben, any thoughts on that day?
“I was 2 months old,” Curtis cracked. “I remember Jack making that putt. That’s about it.”