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Ben Curtis reassures
Golf is never dull. Sometimes it appears so when the routine of tournament play is eschewed by the leading lights or officialdom schedules an event for a course on which you wouldn't walk a dog. But just when you feel that the asylum has been taken over by the inmates, the whole picture changes and you feel that there is a meaning to life after all.

Ben Curtis' appearance at Royal Troon last week was such a jab in the arm, for the combination of his confident self-assurance and humility was heart-warming. Ben Curtis is not a smooth dude, nor is he self-absorbed in the way that many of his American predecessors were. He is a modern young American guy who knows what he is and what he is about. He knows that he is no Nicklaus or Watson. He is aware that he does not have the charisma of a Palmer. He does not have the relentless machinery of a Woods nor does he have the Tiger's polish in front of the press.

What he does have is outright honesty and integrity and he is mightily glad to have won the Open Championship.

Ben Curtis walked into the clubhouse at Troon like a dusty but refreshing prairie breeze. His denim trousers, sneakers and NFL windcheater would have kept lesser men at the door at Royal Troon which, like so many other pretentious places, is a blazer and tie joint. He seemed blissfully unaware of what was expected of him and it was a pity that he had to make the excuse of 'no baggage'.

It seemed a pity too, that like Paul Lawrie in recent years, he was questioned into a defence of himself as an Open Champion. It was even more of a pity that he did not have nous enough to say that it was people like him, as a 250-1 winner, that makes the Open the world's greatest golfing challenge. With that claim he could have cited all of his great predecessor countrymen from Hagen to Hogan, including Jones and Snead - and from Palmer to Woods, including Nicklaus and Watson, for all have attested to the sternness of the test.

Unlikely winners of the Open stretch back as far as Tom Kidd at St Andrews in 1873. Tom was a journeyman player who got lucky as well as consistent on a waterlogged course at a time when there was no relief from standing water. From Tom's day to this there have been ongoing mutterings from the mediocre about the part played by dame fortune in determining the 'Champion Golfer of the Year'.

Davis Love summed things up perfectly last year at St George's when asked if he knew of Ben Curtis? 'I don't know anything about Ben,' he replied. 'But when a golf course plays like this, and when it's a fine line between a good shot and a bad shot, these things can happen.'

Love might as well have said that Curtis was lucky. Considering the vagaries of the bounces in links golf, Curtis was lucky. But Curtis was also 'lucky' enough to have obtained the services of a local man to carry his clubs, just as all of his great American predecessors had obtained the services of, if not a local caddie then a caddie with an extensive knowledge of links golf.

Luck, the highflying losers have always insisted, plays an improportional part in winning on a links. This is true but it is not a claim taken lightly by great multiple champions like Palmer, Player, Nicklaus and Watson. It is also a claim that Peter Thomson readily accepts.

He, more than anyone, expounds best on the virtues of links golf and his thoughts on the ball and modern architecture should be a compulsory module in golf education at all levels. Luck is made on a links by an almost anal attention to detail and access to a range of shots that many modern starlets no longer have in the bag.

Is Royal Troon likely to produce a surprise winner this year? Troon is a relative newcomer to the Open venues and, although it produced a surprise winner, Arthur Havers, in its inaugural year in 1923, it has generated more excitement than surprises since. Arthur pipped Walter Hagen by a single shot to deprive the flamboyant American of back-to-back wins. Walter finally achieved that distinction in '28 and '29 at Sandwich and Muirfield in the middle of an American rout that was interrupted only by the unlikely wins of the Alfs - Perry and Padgham in '35 and '36.

One has to concede that because of the depression there were few Americans in the field and it was a situation that continued until Sam Snead took the laurels in the first post-war Open.

After 1923, Troon again hosted the championship in 1950 when Bobby Lock won. It was a further 12 years before Palmer defended his Birkdale title at Troon. Like Palmer, Tom Weiskopf could hardly be described as a surprise winner in 1973 and neither Watson nor Nicklaus could have been considered unlikely after the greatest of all duels in the 1970s.

Mark Calcavecchia was perhaps an unlikely champion in 1989 but he was far from an unknown quantity. I think that one can conclude that Troon is no more or less likely to produce a surprise winner than any other Open venue and it has no more or less bumps than anywhere else.

This is the thing that makes the Open what it is. The unlikely does occur, but only rarely and who knows where or when? It is the fact that it does occur, and makes for men like Ben Curtis, that makes the event at once reassuring and uplifting. After the humdrum of staged tournament play where contractual obligations determine everything, the Open best reflects the game, and life, with its entire vicissitudes. It is the uncertainty that makes it all worthwhile.

©    17 - MAY 2004

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