He has kibitzed with Matt Lauer, yukked it up with David
Letterman, chilled in the Oval Office with George W. Bush, and
been feted and fawned over everywhere he has gone. Life has been
a dizzying magic carpet ride for Ben Curtis since his unlikely
triumph at last month's British Open, leaving him little time to
ponder the magnitude of what he accomplished. "When you're going
through something like this, you don't really think about it,"
Curtis says. "But when you step back and think about it
afterward, that's when it sets in and you think, Wow, I can't
believe I did that."
As Curtis speaks, he is enjoying a rare opportunity to reflect.
He's sitting in a hotel room near Grand Blanc, Mich., two days
before making his return to the PGA Tour, at the Buick Open at
Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club. Curtis says he is looking
forward to a return to what he calls "normalcy," but there's no
going back. An hour ago he conducted his first-ever pretournament
press conference. ("Hopefully I can do that every week," he
says.) Tomorrow he will play in his first Wednesday pro-am. (He
has played in four pro-ams this year, but they were the jayvee
version held on Mondays.) Although Curtis went on to make the cut
at the Buick, a shaky 76 last Saturday sent him skidding to 61st
place, and he faced what's-wrong-with-your-game questions from
reporters who three weeks ago had barely heard of him.
In short, Curtis has had a great ride as America's Sweetheart,
but as he gets ready for next week's PGA Championship--a
tournament he was not eligible to play in before the British
Open--he is slowly realizing that even magic carpets have to land
sometime. In fact, Curtis had hardly touched down in the U.S.
before he got his first taste of controversy, a result of his
decision to withdraw from the Greater Hartford Open the week
after the British. Curtis took some jabs from reporters, but it
was the criticism from his fellow pros that stung the most. "I
was disappointed that Ben withdrew," said Peter Jacobsen, who won
the tournament. "You don't do that. I know you have to think
about yourself and your health, but in the short term you have to
keep your obligation." Jay Don Blake said, "He's really done
wrong," and Billy Andrade piled on, too, saying,"I know one
thing--if Ben Curtis didn't win [the British Open], his tail
would've been in Hartford." Curtis says he felt bad about
withdrawing but did so because he wanted to spend the weekend
with the members of his family who had not been able to travel to
England for the British.
The minitempest served as an example of the difficulties that
inevitably follow such luminous success. But Curtis is better
prepared to handle the challenges than one might imagine,
especially considering all the stories that have filled the media
recently, describing him as a guileless rube who stumbled onto a
Know this: Ben Curtis is not a Tin Cup who had one lucky week. He
was a highly accomplished amateur long earmarked for pro stardom.
As an elite player at Buckeye Valley High outside his hometown of
Ostrander, Ohio, Curtis was recruited by virtually every major
college program in the country. He chose Kent State because it
was small and close to home. He became a three-time All-America
there and in 2000 rose to No. 1 in the world amateur ranking.
Curtis may not have been as hyped as contemporaries David
Gossett, Charles Howell and Matt Kuchar, but the golf industry
saw his potential. After Curtis's senior year at Kent State he
was wooed by several high-powered management agencies, which
typically don't waste their time scavenging for Roy McAvoy types.
"That gave me a lot of confidence because if they believed in me,
why shouldn't I?" Curtis says. He decided on industry leader IMG,
which had little trouble securing a two-year sponsorship
agreement with Titleist. Curtis qualified for the Tour last
December on his third trip to Q school (Masters champ Mike Weir,
by contrast, needed five attempts to qualify), and though he was
an under-the-radar rookie heading into the British, Curtis had
made eight cuts in his previous 10 starts and finished a solid
13th at the Western Open.
Curtis is one of the least mechanical players on Tour, which is
why his swing should continue to hold up well under pressure, as
it did on Sunday at Royal St. George's. Curtis occasionally took
lessons from a local teaching pro as a teenager, and he visits
his college coach, Herb Page, from time to time for a checkup,
but other than that he has had no formal instruction. "He likes
his mind uncluttered," Page says. On one occasion Page talked
Curtis into a video evaluation of his swing, and Curtis was so
haunted by the intricate instruction it took him six months to go
back to swinging by feel. Nor has Curtis ever been one to pound
practice balls until his hands bleed. "I grew up on a driving
range where you had to pick up your own balls after you hit
them," he says, "so I learned the game by playing."
That driving range was located at the now-famous Mill Creek Golf
Course in Ostrander. The 18-hole layout that Curtis's maternal
grandfather Bill Black built in 1973 has a Field of Dreams
quality to it--right down to the cornfields that had to be
cleared from the site. Black, who died in February at age 82, was
devoted to his family, but he was also a tough old cuss who saw
potential in Ben that Ben didn't always see in himself.
Black was old school, a natural extension of the three decades he
spent as a high school teacher and coach in Ohio, and he believed
everyone around him should work as hard as he did. "He wasn't the
type of guy to pat you on the back if you did something well,"
says Curtis's father, Bob, who has been the superintendent at
Mill Creek since 1976. "He'd rather find something wrong so you
could fix it."
Ben was golf-obsessed at such a young age that, when he was 12,
his parents moved from their house next to Mill Creek to another
one two miles away, hoping to get him off the course. "I think a
kid that age needs other interests," Bob says. Ben's passion for
golf continued unabated through high school, but he often fell
short of his grandfather's exacting standards. That was difficult
because his grandfather was the person Ben most wanted to please.
"It was almost as if he didn't want me to have a personal life,"
Curtis says. "I would say to my mom, 'Why is he acting like this
toward me? I mean, it's 5:30 in the evening, and I've been at the
course for four hours already.'"
For all his on-course insouciance, Curtis clearly carries his
grandfather's resolve when he plays. Off the course it's another
story. Curtis says an eerie calm came over him as he lined up the
eight-foot par putt on the 18th green that eventually won him the
British Open, but his heart was "beating like a racehorse's" the
night he proposed to Candace Beatty during a Caribbean cruise in
December 2001. Beatty was a walk-on for the Kent State women's
golf team, and she and Curtis had been close friends for two
years before he confessed how he felt about her. "I'm shy in
everything," Curtis says. "You can kind of control what happens
on the course, but you can't control a situation like that."
There will be a lot of things out of Curtis's control in the
future, but at least he will have plenty of options. His agent at
IMG, Jay Danzi, has received numerous offers for appearances and
endorsements since Curtis's Open victory. Besides getting Curtis
into the PGA, the win also earned him a berth in two remaining
World Golf Championship events, beginning with the $6 million NEC
Invitational on Aug. 21-24 in Akron. Anticipating a week off, he
and Candace had planned their wedding for that Saturday in Kent,
Ohio, a date they will keep no matter what happens during
Curtis's third round. "We checked on the tee times, and I should
be done playing and have plenty of time to get there for a few
pictures," he says, noting that the wedding will be held 15 miles
from Firestone Country Club. "Everybody said it's fine if I'm
late. They'll wait."
A mad dash to the alter seems about right for Curtis's new life.
Winning the claret jug has set him on a new path, but as he
learned at Royal St. George's, even life in the middle of the
fairway can be bumpy.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID BERGMAN CRASH LANDING Curtis finished 61st at last week's Buick Open, his first event since returning from England.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU SIGN BOY Curtis (at Mill Creek) has made his grandfather's course famous, and Ben's name now adorns much of its gear.
Curtis has often been described, incorrectly, as a guileless rube
who stumbled onto a major title.