Catching Up with Todd Hamilton, the Unlikely 2004 Open Champion at Troon

July 6, 2016

I was looking for a hot tip in the days leading up to the 2004 British Open at Troon. Caddie Ron “Bambi” Levin offered one. He said if his man was ever going to win the British Open, this was the week, and this was the man.

Todd Hamilton was a 38-year-old journeyman who had played for the University of Oklahoma and on the Japan Tour, where he had won four times the previous year. In late 2003, he’d gotten through PGA Tour Qualifying School, and then he’d won the 2004 Honda Classic.

And so I knew him through his caddie, Levin, a friend from our shared connection to the University of Colorado. But I didn’t place the bet. (Oops.) As Hamilton tells it, only about five people in the world did, one of them a friend of Levin’s who accidentally bet on him twice. “For some reason I had an eerie calmness that week,” Hamilton says, “especially as that last round got toward the end. I just felt that everything was going to work out in my favor. I’d felt that before and it had worked out.”

Long story short: Hamilton made a snake on 18 to shoot even in round one, which he later called a major confidence boost, and then found his A+ game with a pair of 4-under 67s that gave him a one-shot lead over Ernie Els going into Sunday.

“Cameron,” Hamilton said as he walked past me on the way to the first tee on Sunday. “Isn’t there a rapper named Cam’ron?” He seemed strangely relaxed.

Indeed, he shot 69, Els 68. Cue the four-hole aggregate playoff, which Hamilton won with four pars, including a deft save on 18. When his approach came up short, he used his trusty Sonartec hybrid, bent to 3-wood loft, to chip it close.

Somehow I wound up giving him a ride into town after he’d been announced as “the champion golfer of the year,” and after his media obligations, and we stood on the sidewalk outside the Italian restaurant Hamilton had eaten at all week. It was closed, the employees inside eating their own dinners. We could see them through the window.

“Show them the jug!” I said. Hamilton did; they unlocked the door.

Hamilton, the sixth straight American to win the Open at Troon, was soon joined by his wife, Jacque; their kids; and caddie Levin. The party was on, and it would last the rest of the year and beyond. Levin, recognized at the airport, was given a complimentary upgrade for his flight home. Hamilton was green-lighted for the majors and other high-gloss tournaments. Joe Hardy, the 84 Lumber founder and CEO, paid for a charter to take players from the 84 Lumber Classic in Pittsburgh to the 2004 WGC-American Express at Ireland’s Mount Juliet, and I scored one of Hamilton’s six allotted seats.

Time passed. Hamilton missed more cuts than he made on Tour, and he and Levin parted amicably. Levin returned to Troon to caddie at the 2008 Senior Open and the little Italian restaurant was no longer in business. I bet on a few losers at the Open. Hamilton got demoted to the Tour as he neared senior eligibility.

Now 50 and playing on the PGA Tour Champions, where he has made $200,000 this year, he recently reflected on his improbable career highlight, the best $800 he ever spent, and an eerie moment in the final round that he still can’t get out of his head.

You’re playing on the Champions circuit now, and you’ve had a chance to win a few tournaments this year. Do you feel like you’re enjoying a bit of a revival?

My game’s starting to come around. I’m still making some silly mistakes that have cost me some really good finishes. My situation leading up to the Champions tour was odd because for about two years I didn’t play a whole lot of competitive golf.

So you couldn’t really build a schedule.

I played the Tour events I could get into, Reno, the Deere, but this is a new start. I played four weeks in a row on the Champions recently, which I hadn’t done in years. All the guys have been great, guys like Wayne Levi, Hale Irwin, who I never got the opportunity to play with on Tour. They’ve been very welcoming.

Are you excited to go back to Troon?

I haven’t been back for anything in 12 years, so I’m really looking forward to getting over there and seeing any changes they’ve made, if they’ve made any. I enjoy the challenge of links golf, but I wouldn’t want to do it every day.

What are your most vivid memories of the week you won the Open?

The eerie thing I remember, 11th hole final round, I made a 12- to 15-foot putt for a birdie, and I could hear all the gallery cheering and clapping but there was one voice I heard above all the others and it sounded like my mother’s voice.

Your mother, Jayne Pearson, was there.

She was. But it would be hard to pick that out over 1,000 people or whatever, but for some reason it stuck out. Whether it was her or not, I don’t know. She was hollerin’ for a made putt, no words—it was just her yell.

What was the best shot you hit that day?

Going back to the 11th hole, that’s a tee shot where you can’t see the fairway, and I remember using that utility club, it was actually my three-wood, and I hit a really good drive in the middle of the fairway, and I hit eight-iron in. I think the hole was 480 or 490, and it was playing downwind and the ball was runnin’, but it’s kind of a stressful tee shot, and I hit a really good one and got the safe sign from the marshal.

Any other shots stick out in your mind?

On 14 I chipped in with a nine-iron, and that’s when I realized the enormity of what was going on and felt I had a chance to do something out of the ordinary. I think that chip-in gave me a two-shot lead with four to go.

Where’s that Sonartec utility wood?

All the clubs that week except for my putter, which I accidentally broke, are in the bag that Bambi carried that week, in our basement in Dallas. The grips are all torn and the irons are all dinged up. I actually had that set of irons for a long time. A friend of mine was in the golf business and I wanted a set of Mizuno irons, and I ordered them from him. I think I paid about $800 for ’em, one-iron through pitching wedge.

They were a good investment.

It was worth the $800. I think the check for winning was 700,000 pounds.

What do you remember about the celebration afterward, at the restaurant?

I remember knocking on the door, the slats were down on the blinds, and somebody looked out, and I raised the case and those slats or blinds closed. Somebody else came over and maybe I took the jug out, I don’t remember, and we were let in. And we stayed there three or four hours, popped the Champagne, pictures, everything. That was fun. The [restaurant owner] sent me 10 or 12 photos. It was a cool night.

Are you a player who tends to win once he gets in contention?

I lost playoffs in Japan where I faltered at the end of regulation. There was one where I bogeyed the last two holes and lost in a playoff to Jumbo Ozaki. And I think I bogeyed the first hole of the playoff. It was my last tournament of the trip, so I had to sit on that loss for 14 hours on the plane ride back to the States.

You’ll bring the whole family back to Troon?

Yeah, and it’ll be funny to see because all the kids were there but they were too young to remember much. Drake was one and a half, Kaylee was four, Tyler was six.

Got anything special planned?

The club contacted me, and on Monday night of the Open week they’re going to make me, Mark Calcavecchia and Justin Leonard—we all won at Troon—honorary members. There’s going to be a Q and A, they’ve got a band, they’ll probably have some food and drinks. I believe Tom Watson and Tom Weiskopf, who also won at Troon, are also invited. I’m not sure if they’ll be there or not. Pretty cool.