Todd Hamilton: The Quiet American

January 26, 2012

It's 1 in the morning, six hours after Todd Hamilton won the British Open, and the champion is peering through the window at Cecchini's Italian restaurant, the toughest table in Troon — even tougher now that it's closed. The waitstaff are slurping spaghetti and drinking wine, ignoring the freshly showered gentleman outside, and Hamilton steps back, unsure what to do. He is clutching the Claret Jug, which is embedded in foam inside an anodized steel case. The jug will earn him a visit with David Letterman, a 40-spot ride up the World Ranking, a five-year PGA Tour exemption, a place in the 16-player field at the World Match Play in Surrey, England (last-place money: about $138,000), a trip to Hawaii for the Grand Slam of Golf (last-place money: $150,000), a lifetime of goodwill from Troon to Tokyo, a place in history. But right now, standing out on lonely Portland Street, Hamilton is unsure of the thing's power. Twenty minutes ago at his rented house, where his mother tucked his and wife Jacque's three kids into bed, he needed help just opening the case.

It was, of course, his impeccable touch that won him the thing in the first place.

"Wear him down," caddie Ron "Bambi" Levin said as Hamilton and Ernie Els walked onto the 17th tee, halfway through their four-hole playoff. "Par him to death."

And he did: Four holes, four pars, the last thanks to the early candidate for Shot of the Year, the bump-and-run that won the 133rd British Open.

Everyone saw it; they must have. I saw it and can still barely believe it. I flew to Scotland to cover the British Open and watched one of my favorite guys, the humble Hamilton, with whom I'd shared dinners and Tour talk, beat Els in overtime to claim the precious jug he now carries. I tap on the glass, and one of the restaurant staff looks up, then another. I smile and jab my finger several times at Hamilton — the man on TV that afternoon who has eaten here without fanfare all week. "Come back if you win," the manager said Friday after accepting an autographed TaylorMade cap from Hamilton. "And the champagne is on us."

They come to the door slowly, as if reluctant to believe the Champion Golfer of the Year could walk out of the TV to their stoop. They let him in but it still doesn't seem real; Hamilton can hardly fathom it himself. "You believe that?" he had asked Jacque before giving her a kiss back at IMG's rental house, where he was feted with champagne and pizza and given his first taste of the white-glove treatment by his longtime agents. Jacque believed, but she'd had her doubts: When Todd was lining up his third shot on the par-4 18th in regulation, up against the left fence, she was crying. She thought it was all falling apart, that "he'd come all that way and done all that work for nothing." After he won the playoff, Todd was the one crying.

Inside the restaurant, a beaming Hamilton cracks open the case and hands the evidence to a young waitress who shrieks and recoils before cradling the Claret Jug like a newborn. The others gather round to hold it, read it and pose with it and the Champion Golfer of the Year. The manager snaps to and takes the drink orders, and a waitress pops the first cork. Jacque orders a bowl of pasta and the chef brings three, plus a pizza.

Yesterday, one newspaper called him Scott Hamilton, as in the former Olympic figure skater, and another failed to mention him at all, even though he was the 54-hole Open leader.

Now Todd Hamilton is in. {C} The British tabloids loved the tale of circus elephant Norma Jean, who came to Hamilton's hometown of Oquawka, Illinois, in 1974 only to be zapped by a bolt of lightning and buried in the town square. "I'll believe I'm open champ when I see an elephant fry," the Scottish Daily Record screamed with typical all-caps understatement. "Todd storms up field with a wacky tale of dead Dumbo."

His golf stories are good too: tales of disappearing and reappearing balls sneakily punted, pocketed or thrown by caddies or wives in the far-flung outposts of the Asian Tour. Or the kid who bloodied Hamilton's nose with his own 5-iron during kindergarten show-and-tell. Or the time in college when a friend twirled his driver while walking off the tee and accidentally smacked Hamilton in the mouth, lopping off the bottom half of his right-front tooth.

"It didn't hurt," he says. "I put my tongue on it and it was razor sharp, and I could feel the coolness of the air when it hit the nerves."
But don't ask him about the 61 he shot in a junior tournament he won by 14 strokes. Getting that story out of Hamilton is like pulling teeth. Strong and tough and experienced he may be. Egocentric he is not. Golf is his social lubricant, his way to move in the world. It has been ever since he was a shy kid knocking balls into plastic cups in his backyard in Oquawka, a tiny farm town on the upper banks of the Mississippi, where his dad still runs the Hamilton Supermarket.

"Todd gets back home and immediately wants to go play 36 holes," says Jay Cockerell, proprietor of JC's Burger Houses — home of the three-patty Toddzilla Burger — in Texas, where Hamilton lives now. "He'll play in the snow, with anyone. He'll play with 30-handicappers. Even if they couldn't play dead in a western, he'll play with them."

For Hamilton, 38, golf is the tee that binds. And now that he's got a prop, the Claret Jug, he's unstoppable. Minutes after winning the game's oldest title, he went around shaking hands with what he called "the best fans in the world" at Troon, letting them touch the trophy. He partied till 4 a.m. at Cecchini's, telling the owners they "serve lucky food." He threw out the opening pitch at a New York Mets game, read the Top 10 on the Letterman show, got a handwritten letter of congratulations from his hero, Jack Nicklaus, and accepted pats on the back from fellow Tour pros. "You're next," he told Chris DiMarco. "If I can do it, anybody can do it."

Hamilton has become the most sociable shy man on earth. If he's in, everybody's in, because you can't be a diva when you're no more famous than a Hollywood bopper-idol (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton) and still get mistaken for a bald, elfish figure skater.

He posed for GOLF MAGAZINE at the Players Championship and then gave the photographer a lift back to his hotel. At The Masters he invited David Sheffield, a former teammate at the University of Oklahoma, to stay with him and Jacque at their rental house along with the kids — Tyler, 6, Kaylee, 4, and Drake, 1 — and his parents, Jayne and Kent.

While Hamilton twice made first-team All-American at Oklahoma, Sheffield bounced around the bottom of the lineup. Both loved the game and worked hard, and their friendship grew. When Sheffield was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring semester of his freshman year in 1985, Todd and Jacque Saben, his high school sweetie who had followed him to Oklahoma, did what they could. Jacque drove Sheffield from Norman to Oklahoma City to get bone marrow extracted from his hip. Chronic myelogenous leukemia is a wicked disease, the one that killed Nationwide Tour pro Jace Bugg last year, but Sheffield hung in and kept playing. When the cancer returned in 1987, followed by a near-fatal lung infection, he left the team and soon retired. He would live his golf life through Hamilton.

Which is why there was no happier caddie during the par-3 tournament the Wednesday before The Masters. Drowning in white overalls with "Hamilton" on his back, the rail-thin Sheffield — he'd gotten down to 118 pounds from his playing weight of 155 — toted a small bag with 7-iron through sand wedge, plus the Ping B-60 putter Hamilton bought used for $50 years ago, and then toured golf's hallowed ground with his friend. Hamilton parred the first hole, three-putted the second for double-bogey, then reeled off five straight birdies. "It was a clinic," Sheffield says proudly.

"We don't talk much because we're both introverts, but Todd's been good to me," says Sheffield, who watched Hamilton's British Open win from his home in Sherman, Texas. "I wasn't really much of a caddie for him. I'd just give him the clubs and sit down."

They had a rule in college: If one of them made an eagle, the other owed him not a pair of crystal goblets — the prize for eagles in The Masters — but a Slurpee. So when Hamilton eagled Augusta's 13th hole during a turbulent back-nine 39 on Friday, a day in which he would shoot 71 to make the cut on the number after a first-round 77, he smiled when he heard Sheffield say from somewhere deep in the crowd, "I owe you a Slurpee." {C} How the kid from Oquawka became such a success is a story of dogged determination, frequent-flier miles and lots of soba noodles.

A one-man golf team in high school, Hamilton twice won the Illinois state title. After his star turn at Oklahoma, he shot a final-round 76 in his first try at PGA Tour Qualifying School in 1987 to miss getting his card by three shots. He almost went bust after three lean years on the Asian Tour, playing in India, Pakistan, Thailand and Singapore, but survived with seed money from a group of Illinois investors. He won three tournaments and the tour's Order of Merit in 1992.

That got him a ticket to the Japan PGA Tour, where a strong yen fortified already healthy purses. Hamilton won four times from '92 through '94 to cement his status there. He won again in '95, '96 and '98, then suffered a four-year victory drought before catching fire again last year with titles eight through 11. He became wealthy — even spending $500 a week on cab fare in Japan — with career earnings of $5.7 million. By then he was 37, a nonentity to U.S. fans.

That he found time to have three kids with Jacque is a testament to American Airlines flight 60, Tokyo-to-Dallas direct, and their ability to skip the small talk. Todd would spend four to six weeks on the road, then return to Texas for two to three weeks at a time, and be home for almost three months during Japan's long off-season of December, January and February.

As the family grew, Jacque faxed him their kids' drawings and letters. Todd mailed back passport-sized photographs of himself pasted into Japanese magazines.

"Pretty goofy," he says, "but it was boring over there."
Still, life was good. Hamilton changed his spikes in Japan's grand, ornate locker rooms. "Nicer than the ones here," he says. He drank Dom Perignon at a pub in Tokyo's melting-pot Roppongi district, the raucous Motown bar, where he and Brian Watts and other Americans toasted their golf triumphs. It was after losing a playoff to Watts in 1996 that a sozzled Hamilton began a tradition that lives on: Anytime a foreign player did well, he would buy a bottle of Dom, drain it, date and sign it and place the bottle on a shelf over the door.

Yen poured into his bank account, and Hamilton ate well. Only once did he screw up his table manners.

"I was at dinner with some people from IMG," he says. "And I stuck my chopsticks in my rice to go get a drink. This lady who was a secretary in the Tokyo office got so mad she yanked them out real quick. You'd think I poked her eyes out. It's bad luck to stick your chopsticks in the food. Very bad luck — supposedly it means somebody's going to die."

Todd wasn't dead but missing in action back home. Jacque handled the finances, travel arrangements and everything else so Todd could play. With the help of a neighbor's niece she cared for the kids, driving them to hockey practice, dance and swim lessons and cheerleading practice. "We had a very young cheerleader — they take 'em at 3 in Texas," she says.

Everything changed when Hamilton shot a three-under 69 in the last round of his eighth Q-School last December, earning his Tour card. With his regular caddie stuck in Canada, unable to get a work visa, Toddzilla turned to longtime caddie Bambi Levin, at the Chrysler Classic of Tucson in February. The results were almost immediate: The next week at Doral, Hamilton shot 11-under and tied for 15th.

His pro-am partners at the Honda Classic the following week had played with 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis last year. "You're in for a good year," one of them said, and Hamilton shot 68-66-68 to take a four-stroke lead over Fredrik Jacobson. Unable to sleep, Hamilton got up at 6 a.m. Sunday and decided to do laundry to take his mind off the day ahead. When he bought soap, a Diet Coke and a newspaper at the grocery store, the total came to $7.77. Lucky sevens.

"Jacque," said the superstitious Hamilton when he returned, "something special's going to happen today."

It did. That day he knocked an 8-iron stiff and birdied the Honda's 72nd hole for a one-shot victory over Davis Love III. "I looked it up on ShotLink," he says. "That last putt was 4 feet, 3 inches. But I felt the ground tilting up and down and side to side, and the green, which was in perfect shape, looked like a waffle. My mind started wandering: 'If you make this you'll get all this money and brag to your buddies at home.' My eyes were tearing up, my lip was quivering. So I bit my lip as I was reading the putt. It didn't bleed, but it got my mind back on track."

That putt made him a PGA Tour winner, exempt through 2006. It made him think he might make a few birdies in the world's oldest championship. The omens were out in full force again before the British Open. While Todd and son Tyler sat in business class on the flight from Dallas, Jacque sat with Jayne and the two younger kids in coach, where she struck up a conversation with a young priest from North Dakota.

"I always liked watching golf, but I never know who to root for," the priest said. "I'll say a prayer for Todd." {C} Hamilton and Levin were finishing their final practice round on Wednesday when they looked up at one of the huge yellow scoreboards towering over Troon's 18th green, and saw that it had him leading the tournament: Hamilton was in the top slot, with other names below. Maybe the scoreboard operator was named Hamilton, Todd and Bambi thought. In any case, that's not the sort of thing Todd overlooks.

He carries seven lucky items in his pocket, including but not limited to a 1965 quarter (the year he was born), a gaming token from the Lady Luck Casino in Bettendorf, Iowa, and a Polish 50-groszny coin (for no reason). Old charms are discarded for new ones after bad rounds. If he is struggling with a Titleist 4, he'll switch to something else, since 4 is considered unlucky in Japan. His mother had green rubber bands installed in the bottom row of her braces for The Masters, but Todd finished 40th, perhaps because he couldn't find his lucky divot repair tool.

It was less luck than peace of mind that bolstered Hamilton at Troon. He did the lip-biting trick again over his final putt, but he says he never got nervous, or at least not enough to matter. He didn't fear Ernie Els. Why? Because Hamilton had already made it. He made it by succeeding in Asia. He made it big by earning his Tour card, then made it bigger by winning the Honda. The British Open? That's so big he is almost too superstitious to think about it.

He and Jacque are moving into a new 6,500-square-foot house at Westlake, Texas's Vaquero Country Club in September. "Get any kind of car you want," he told Jacque in Troon, and she bought a new Mercedes S500, though she's already got a '97 Mercedes. One other upgrade: She'll replace the fake diamond earrings she wore in Troon with real diamonds.

Hamilton still hasn't picked out the car he won for his Honda victory and doesn't know what he'll do with it when he does. He gives away hats, balls and gloves at a rate equal to that with which they show up in his locker every week. He got an AT&T phone card with 500 free minutes at Pebble Beach earlier this year, but gave it to his uncle.

"The people out here can't do enough for you," Hamilton says of life on Tour. "It's embarrassing."

And it's getting more so by the minute.

At 2 in the morning at Cecchini's restaurant, seven hours after his playoff triumph over Els, a comely blond 18-year-old waitress crowds Hamilton, seemingly oblivious to the presence of his wife. She calls herself the "Lassie from Barrassie," a nearby town, and announces proudly, "This is me fifth Open!"

Hamilton indulges the lass, and lets her cuddle the jug. Five Opens — that's one more than Hamilton's played. But his record is better: Cut, T-44, Cut, 1.

All night he can't stop touching the trophy. When the talk turns to past Open champions, he is stumped: "Did Watson finish second or first that year? I can't remember."

For a moment, nobody has the answer. Then it hits Hamilton: He has the ultimate reference guide. He lifts the Claret Jug and there's his answer, etched in silver. Yes, Watson won in 1983.

And 21 lines below that, freshly etched today, these words: Todd Hamilton 2004 at Troon 274 strokes.

Yes, it really happened. Todd's Texas Wedge

If you want to hit the hybrid-club Texas wedge that Todd Hamilton used at the British Open — including the title-clinching stroke in his playoff with Ernie Els — don't get ahead of yourself. The average player addresses the ball with too much of a forward press, setting his right shoulder much lower than his left and producing an upward stroke and a skulled, off-target shot.

"The butt of the club should point only a half-inch left of your belt buckle," says GOLF MAGAZINE Top 100 Teacher Todd Sones of Whitedeer Golf Club in Vernon Hills, Illinois. "The key is to keep the club traveling low through impact, so you need to keep your shoulders level. Beyond that it's all about distance and line, just like a putt." Red-Letterman Day

Top Ten Perks of Winning the British Open, presented by Todd Hamilton on The Late Show

10.   "Everywhere I go, I'm recognized by middle-aged fat guys."

9.   "Whenever Tiger Woods and about a dozen other guys turn down an endorsement deal, I get the call."

8.   "Claret Jug is full of sambuca."

7.   "Get to appear on MTV's Pimp My Cart."

6.   "If you beat your caddie with a pitching wedge, the PGA looks the other way."

5.   "President Bush called me — he kept calling me Ernie, but it was still nice."

4.   "Certain my boyhood home in Oquawka, Illinois, will soon become the No. 1 tourist spot in America."

3.   "You become a household name like past winners David Brown and George Duncan."

2.   "For the next week only, Big Ben will be renamed 'Big Todd.' "

1.   "I've been filling up some divots, if you know what I mean."